Russell integrates practical science in K-12 schoolWritten by Christy Hemken
“K-12 schools are so unique, special and different and I fell in love with the idea,” she says.
After graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2004 with a teaching degree she learned the Little Snake River Valley School in Baggs, which is just shy of 200 students, had an open teaching position. “I was thrilled, and thought that opportunity was the coolest thing,” she explains.
“They’re so different than other schools, and I teach all the different sciences for all the grades, and that’s neat, but it’s hard because there are some days I teach six different classes and six different subjects,” she says of teaching all levels of students.
She says one of the main things of a K-12 school is being involved with the students’ lives. “It’s so much fun because in a K-12 school you also get to know your colleagues very well. I can go down and talk to the kindergarten teacher and we can work on a project together, and you don’t get to do that in a big school. I get to do things with other grades and students of different levels.”
She says one of her favorite things is to use the mixed ages to get the younger students excited about science.
In her second year teaching Russell became involved with Wyoming Agriculture in the Classroom (WAIC), which led to her recognition as the WAIC 2009 Educator of the Year.
“I really believe that I have to keep learning myself, and I can always use new tips and new things to incorporate into the classroom,” she says of her decision to attend her first Natural Resource Rendezvous, which was in Torrington that year. “The Rendezvous was awesome, because it was so hands on and included a lot of phenomenal ideas on how to incorporate education about the environment and agricultural issues.”
She says the WAIC approach is similar to her own philosophy on education. “In science you’ve got to smell, feel and touch, and I got really excited and started incorporating more ideas into the classroom.”
At her second Rendezvous, which was held in Baggs, Russell was not only a student but also a teacher, instructing her fellow educators on GPS use and geocaching, which she incorporates into an earth science unit that talks about maps and navigation.
In addition, Russell and her students have begun to participate in the Wyoming Stream Team. “With the Stream Team we go out and do hands-on water quality monitoring,” she says. “We measure the physical and chemical aspects of the Little Snake River and enter the information on a website that’s used to monitor rivers and streams.”
She says she thinks the Stream Team is a great way to show kids the application of their education. “It’s not just science in the classroom, but real world application, and that’s my biggest approach.”
Russell’s students are also involved in the Lexus Eco-Challenge, which challenges students to come up with ways to help the environment through water, land and air projects.
Because Baggs generally experiences water rations in the summer, Russell says her students chose to make the focus of their project conserving water in the town through place bottles in toilet tanks throughout town.
“We had a month to set up the project with a management plan and a research plan, get the data and put it all together,” she explains.
Through their blog the students had bottles sent as far as Arizona and letters from all over Wyoming. “We were asking people to take small steps, because they’re easier than one huge one, and it seemed to help,” says Russell.
Although their data was skewed because of several water leaks in the town during the study, Russell said it was good for the students to encounter that kind of a problem.
In conjunction with the projects Russell says her classes last year had a strong focus on water and how it relates to agriculture and the environment and sustainability. “We were asking, how can we help things instead of just talking about the problems,” she says.
She gives credit to her students, saying she’s fortunate to live in Wyoming where the kids are ag-based. “I’m really lucky because these kids have a better understanding about taking care of the land, and not just for agriculture, but also for recreation and hunting. They realize they’ve got to sustain it.”
“I think it’s such a wonderful program, and I’m really blessed to be in Baggs with wonderful school principals,” she says of WAIC and the school. “I really hope the bigger schools will stop and look at how this program could benefit their kids. The science in WAIC is really a gateway to help kids learn science hands-on.”
“I hope they get this program in the bigger cities, because I don’t know if some of those kids get it,” says Russell. “I think it’s really hard when we spend so much time trying to drill for testing, but this stuff is what you can’t really test. I think they learned more doing that Lexus Eco-Challenge than anything because they had to write, and put together PowerPoints and newspaper articles, go before the city council and critique themselves.”
In the upcoming school year Russell will continue with her usual WAIC projects. “I keep thinking that I need to get the students to think of an environmental issue in which we can help the Little Snake River Valley,” she says.
Russell was recognized and awarded $1,000 at the Agriculture Hall of Fame Picnic in Douglas at the Wyoming State Fair Aug. 12.
Financial contributors to the WAIC Educator of the Year include EnCana Oil and Gas USA, the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, Platte Valley Bank of Torrington and American National Bank of Worland.