Tim Vizer [email protected]
Students in a small private school in the metro-east are learning about science and math through lessons that combine nature and technology, like building robots to help care for chickens.
Educator Carrie Wilson Herndon said students in her class at Metro East Montessori School hardly ever see a worksheet. She teaches science, technology, engineering and math.
“We do real science,” she said, including experiments in which students are collecting their own data.
Children at the school on Illinois 162 in Pontoon Beach care for and learn from four hens they incubated and hatched, who live there with permission from the village. Herndon also takes students to a Troy farm once a week to study two bee hives.
Whether they’re working with chickens or bees, the students are using technology to make observations or to solve problems they’ve identified, Herndon said. Students in an after-school robotics club, for example, built a robot that can open and close the chicken coop door so they don’t have to go outside in the rain to let the chickens out.
When they went to the farm, Herndon said the students wanted to know why the hives were struggling like other honey bee populations nationwide. Could it be pesticides in local water sources outside of the organic farm? Students are testing a nearby creek to find out, Herndon said.
They’re also monitoring the bees’ health using probes and other technology to measure the temperature and weight of the hives.
Herndon said she tries to guide the students but allows them to make their own discoveries.
“That’s best done being out in the environment,” she said. “I could have the same lessons in a textbook about bees and the students would not retain as much information because they wouldn’t be engaged. But once a student dons on their bee suit, they have to be engaged because they’re going to get stung if they’re not.”
As a result of the hands-on lessons, she said students often continue learning when they get home.
“They’ll do their own reading on bees,” Herndon said. “I don’t have to assign reading assignments. They want to do it themselves. Or they watch videos on bee keeping.”
Herndon’s methods are award-winning. She was recently honored with two separate awards for engaging people with nature and for innovative use of data-collection technology in a science classroom.
One of those awards is a HeartLands Conservancy Green Leaf Award. The Mascoutah nonprofit chose Herndon for an award because of her students’ work with the bees and chickens and for testing water sources in the metro-east.
Herndon is also one of seven teachers to receive the Vernier/National Science Teachers Association Technology Award this year.
Winners of the technology award receive $1,000 in cash, $3,000 in Vernier Software & Technology products and up to $1,500 toward expenses to attend the NSTA National Conference in Los Angeles, which took place at the end of March.
Metro East Montessori School received a $41,000 grant for Herndon’s students’ work with the chickens and robots.
“The kids were, for me, the inspiration to write the grant that I wrote,” she said. “They didn’t like going outside when it was raining to let the chickens in and out. They didn’t like going outside when it was thundering and lightening to feed the chickens. So somebody said, ‘What if we built a robot to do that?’”
The Innovative Technology Education Fund grant bought what they needed for the robots, as well as a 3-D printer, kiln, pottery wheels and other technology.