Feature stories

Sowing the seeds of learning

Studying flowers, butterflies and bees provide environmental lesson for Brooklyn 1st-graders

sowing-the-seeds-of-learning-054-0160Miller PhotographyThe students examine purple aster as PS 179 teacher Diane Corrigan (right) looks on.
 More photos >> It’s not often that city kids calmly kneel before flowers and count bees and wasps. But the 21 students in Diane Corrigan’s 1st-grade class at PS 179 in Kensington did just that on a class trip to the Gateway National Recreation Area on Jamaica Bay in Queens on Oct. 9.

The children were avid census takers as they worked in teams with park rangers and volunteers to document what they observed: three bees on a purple aster, one wasp troubling some camphorweed. When the children return in the spring, they’ll do another bee census, the better to gauge the health of the park, which depends on the pollinators to keep flowers and butterflies coming back.

“How many did you guys get?” asked Sanjeeduh, age 6, as she ran over to her classmates on another team.

sowing-the-seeds-of-learning-054-0246Miller PhotographyThe children examine the milkweed seeds under a microscope. That’s the kind of enthusiasm that Corrigan was counting on when she enlisted her class in “Growing a Wild Brooklyn and Queens,” a program funded by the National Park Foundation in partnership with Gateway National Recreation Area, the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA and other environmental groups.

“I’ve always loved science,” said Corrigan, whose father is a biologist. About four years ago, she decided to teach her kindergarten class about composting. “After that, I was named the sustainability coordinator for the school,” Corrigan said. “I didn’t know what sustainability was so I educated myself about it.”

Since then, Corrigan has embraced the role. She’s the lead teacher on the Brooklyn school’s Green Team and helped shape a campaign to litter less.

Corrigan was one of 10 New York City public school teachers whose application for the Gateway program was accepted. She’ll receive a $250 stipend to spend on gardening materials for a pollinator-friendly garden on school property that her 1st-graders will tend.

“First-graders are filled with wonder, they’re so curious,” Corrigan said.

Students will learn about the effects of climate change and severe weather, such as Superstorm Sandy, on the park, and they’ll help restore native plants at risk of being lost because of invasive species.

sowing-the-seeds-of-learning-054-0188Miller PhotographyCorrigan helps a student identify a flowering plant.
 After the bee count, the children headed down separate trails to collect milkweed pods, a necessary nutrient for the monarch butterfly as it starts its long journey to Mexico for the winter. The sunlight the native milkweed needs to grow is often blotted out by invasive plants, and the warming climate means the milkweed is blooming earlier. Both developments have put the monarch butterfly at risk of missing out on the nutrition it needs for its journey.

Students were tasked with removing the seeds from the milkweed pods for later planting. They knew how to retrieve the seeds, Corrigan noted, because the class had practiced on squash in the classroom.

“You’re the first class to come here and make the park a better place,” park ranger Dan Meharg told them.

The park rangers will store the seeds until March, when they’ll return to the PS 179 classroom with the seeds in trays to discuss planting and the importance of habitat restoration for the monarchs and other wildlife.

In May, the class will return to the park to plant the milkweed seeds. “It’s creating a rest stop for pollinators, especially for the monarchs on their way back north in the warmer weather,” Corrigan said.

Along the nature trail, students learned how to identify poison ivy and gazed upward at a wood box — a nest built by park rangers for the screech owl. About five monarchs flew along the path, delighting the children.

The students also had questions not on the agenda, which “Ranger Dan” was happy to answer, and knelt down to observe the trail of an ant colony they discovered.

“I love that about 1st-graders,” Meharg said. “They love to observe things.”

Three grandparents accompanied the students on the trip. By design, the Gateway project involves elders in its activities to draw on their own experiences in the natural world and to share them with the students.

“They need to know the names of flowers and bees,” said Kamrul Anway, whose grandson is in Corrigan’s class. “Education is not just in school. It’s in every corner.”

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