Art and the ecosystem

Students turn science experiments into works of art

January 10, 2011 

  • Robert Hass and Pamela Michael founded the California-based nonprofit organization River of Words in 1995 to encourage a hands-on, multidisciplinary approach to educating children. The program combines scientific exploration with the arts with the goal of improving literacy and cognitive skills, and nurturing creativity.

    For more information on the River of Words program, go to www.riverofwords.org.

Hundreds of local students have spent the past few months exploring the ecosystem and translating their newfound knowledge into expressions of art.

It's all part of Beaufort County School District's participation in the international River of Words program. It aims to improve children's literacy and cognitive skills and nurture their creativity through observation-based nature exploration and the arts.

District fine arts coordinator Margaret Rushton said since the district launched the program in September, students have tested the quality of local waters, examined marine and animal life, studied the wetlands and learned how human behavior affects the environment. Then they have gone back to their classrooms to express what they've learned and how they feel about that new information through artwork and poetry.

Rushton said the district invited all the schools to participate in the program. About 15 schools and 1,500 students have taken part. Each school organized its own projects, using the basic principles of the program and adapted it to its own schedules and situations. At some schools, just one teacher integrated different disciplines into one class. At other schools, several teachers joined together in their efforts. One school took a mathematical approach. Other schools have focused on photography or other art forms.

"That was the beauty of the project," Rushton said. "We did not dictate the outcome so much, other than just say we wanted it to be science at the heart of it, with art and poetry as the outcomes."

Rushton said the schools had the freedom to choose which standards they wanted to build on, which grade levels would participate and which disciplines to include.

"That's really been the magic of the project," she said. "The beauty of it is to allow creativity and to see what they come up with."

LEVELS OF LEARNING

Rushton said many of the district's teachers have gone through the master naturalist course offered by the Lowcountry Institute so they were already well-educated on the environment.

But teachers who were interested in learning more were invited to attend a teacher training day with the institute in September on Spring Island. The idea was to let the teachers learn about the Lowcountry ecosystem first so they could then teach the children.

Once the teachers felt comfortable with their knowledge of the environment, they started incorporating the River of Words program into their curriculum.

Lady's Island Middle School art teacher Cadra Rooney did so by taking her students on a tour of Hunting Island. The students then returned to class, where they used the vocabulary words they had learned that day and the pictures they had taken to create artwork of the marine and animal life they observed.

Rushton said Beaufort High School has focused more on cultural history. She said students there spent time with former fisherman and shrimper Bubba Von Harten and his daughter, Beaufort County Councilwoman Laura Von Harten, and then worked with teaching artist Kim Keats to create artwork inspired by what they'd learned.

On the other hand, Rushton said Bluffton Middle School and H.E. McCracken Middle School have taken a much more scientific approach, testing the salinity of the Lowcountry waters. She said both schools took classes on the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources' Discovery vessel and at the Waddell Mariculture Center.

Bluffton Middle School science teacher Lois Lewis said her seventh-grade students had been talking about the May and Okatie rivers all year and learning about how living and nonliving things interact.

She said taking the students out on the river was a good way to tie it all together. So not only did the students get to explore all sorts of creatures on the Discovery field trip, they also got to go kayaking on a separate outing. They were able to observe creatures on the beach and stop by the Coastal Discovery Museum for a salt marsh investigation, too.

"They're getting lots of hands-on experience about their local environment," Lewis said. And she said that experience will help them understand the local watersheds.

Lewis' students later learned the difference between pervious and impervious, or natural and artificial, materials.

A lab experiment using several different materials showed them that water that filters through natural surfaces ends up much cleaner than the alternative.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Jayla Hutcheson, 13, said she already knew a lot about the May River before participating in the River of Words project in Lewis' class, but she learned a great deal about the local watershed and how it is affected by development. For the final portion of the project, Jayla wrote a poem about the water oaks that surround much of the river.

"It was amazing how much all the building around here affects it," Jayla said about the river. "Even if it's just a little space, it can still do a lot of damage to our May River."

Just before doing the lab experiment that day, the students heard from Andrea Malloy, interim director of the South Coast Office of the Coastal Conservation League. Malloy spoke to the children about ways to allow more development in the county without creating more problems for the environment. Her suggestions were to build smaller and closer together, and add to current buildings rather than constructing new ones.

After all these various activities, Lewis' students drew pictures and wrote poems about animals and plants.

"They're going to be soldiers for reform," Lewis said about her students. "I think they have a strong vision of a clean future, and they question how their world got this way. And I think they would like to see some changes made so the world they inherit will be facing a better direction."

All the county schools were asked to send their artwork to the school district when they finished the projects. Rushton said she has gotten some incredibly clever work.

Everything will be displayed for the public to enjoy at student exhibits in March in honor of Youth Art Month and in April for National Poetry Month. With so much to share, there will be a variety of exhibits across the county -- at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, the Arts Council of Beaufort County and the student gallery area of the school district office in Beaufort.

Rushton said River of Words has been a valuable learning experience for the students and staff of Beaufort County, and district officials plan to continue the program next year.

"We really want to make this an ongoing project," she said.

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