Lessons From Mother Nature: Beyond the Walls

Alumna Uses the Classroom Outside to Enhance the Classroom Inside

Elizabeth HartmannRobert F. Kennedy once noted, “You’re happiest when you’re making the greatest contribution.”

With that in mind, Elizabeth Hartmann (MA ’09), alumna of the master of arts in education with teaching credential program, embarked on a two-week expedition under a fellowship with Earthwatch, the world’s largest environmental nonprofit volunteer organization, to study gray whales and their habitat along the coast of  British Columbia, Canada.

But contributing to scientific fieldwork was not Hartmann’s only goal. A 10th-grade mathematics teacher at Animo South Los Angeles Charter High School in Los Angeles,  Hartmann said that for her, “My objective is teaching students to be critical thinkers, lifelong learners, and active leaders. Students need opportunities to relate curriculum to real-life issues, and applying my experiences from the  Earthwatch expedition was a perfect opportunity to incorporate meaningful, interdisciplinary studies for my students.”

Liz Hartmann

A noble quest indeed, but what do whales have to do with math? “During the  expedition, we studied topics ranging from basic biology and ecology to advanced trigonometric math,” explained Hartmann. “For instance, we measured whale blow rates using a theodolite, which used angles, timing, and trigonometry to calculate the distance of the whale movement. In addition, biological data such as whale locations, the density of mysids (shrimp-like  crustaceans on which whales feed), and photo-identification records were statistically analyzed to determine how whales interact with their environment. The scientific research could not be successful without the mathematical component to collect and analyze data.”

Upon returning home, Hartmann met with her colleagues in the math and science departments. “When curriculum is aligned in multiple departments, students benefit by having a more comprehensive educational program. Animo offers a variety of science  classes, including environmental science, biology, integrated science, physics, and chemistry, but I wanted to create an  interdisciplinary unit incorporating the environmental issues I researched into the traditional mathematics curriculum.”

Hartmann’s view is that without fresh ideas and experiences, students in South Los Angeles often lack the resources and cultural

Whale Searching

Hartmann catches a glimpse of a whale.

capital to connect the theories and curriculum presented in the classroom to the world around them. She described the  California Content Standards for both math and science as “daunting” to students, but reiterated that with real-life examples and applications, students can gain a better understanding and mastery of the content. “Students need more inquiry and discovery activities that make content meaningful. Education is most effective when students are active learners.”

The same is true for Hartmann, who most enjoyed the hands on experiences, from collecting mysids to building an underwater remote-controlled robot to collect data on whale behavior. “My least favorite part was the data entry,” she laughed. “Thousands of data entries and years of study could be easily summed up in just one small graph or sentence, leading nonscientists to think we produced a simple answer to a simple question. But nature is so complex and research so intricate, even a seemingly simple question such as ‘Why do some whales stop their migration in Canada?’ is still being debated.”

Hartmann credited Earthwatch with broadening her scientific knowledge and strengthening her teaching competency, but noted that she could not have done it without GSEP as well. “My professors instilled in me a drive to seek innovative ways of teaching.  And the pedagogical foundation I gained through my courses allowed me to implement the interdisciplinary curriculum  successfully. Finally, GSEP taught me to collaborate to achieve a common goal. Even one research project requires the  cooperation of many scientists and volunteers. In sum, GSEP shaped me into a well-balanced educator and lifelong learner. By sharing my passion with my students, I hope to inspire them to become lifelong learners as well.”

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