Environmental science in the junior high curriculum

The current round of trainings has us teaching quite a lot of environmental science, from geology to atmospheric science to agriculture.  Alongside health, this area of science forges the firmest link to people’s quality of life.  When your environment collapses, you’re left with few choices.

Environment is closely related to population, and Timor’s is currently the most rapidly growing in all of Asia.  Statistics show the growth slowed over the last 5 years, but the current level is far from sustainable.  People want big families for a whole range of reasons. Money is also flowing better than ever now, with good petroleum checks coming in for the government to use. More money can often translate to more clearing of forest, less care for agricultural lands, and more garbage.

I’ve witnessed many times that the Timorese being more aware of their environment than my compatriots in the U.S.  They know life comes from the land.  They know where the vast majority of their calories come from and know how to produce many staples themselves.  They know how to make land produce, and which land won’t produce. During the economic crisis of the mid 2000s, most Timorese were only moderately affected, primarily because their link to the land surpassed their link to the global economy.

We’ve done our best to develop pratika that make use of the tight connection Timorese have to the land, and result in ongoing preservation.   Following are some examples of our work.

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Acid rain is not a problem yet in Timor, but it’s in the curriculum, so we get students to maintain two similar plants for a week, giving one clean water and one vinegar.  Guess which is which in this photo.

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‘What lies beneath our feet?’ ranks right up there with ‘Why is the sky blue?’ in questions kids seem to ask.  We make a sectional model of the earth, showing the relative depth and composition of each layer on a cone of paper. The scale is 6000km to 30cm.

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Then we take them outside and walk the scaled radius of the earth, dropping labels at the boundaries between the layers (Thanks to Eric Muller a the Exploratorium Teacher Institute for this one.) This model’s scale is one step = 100km. The astonishing thing is when we plot the deepest hole ever dug (12 km), the deepest trench in the ocean (11km) and the highest mountain (9km).  They barely show up on this model.  Conclusion: we have to be pretty creative to figure out what’s going on down there.

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After each pratika we get observations and questions from the teachers, and usually write them on the board.  We hope they do the same with their students, thus validating these observations and questions, valuable as the info in the textbook or even more so.

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Next day we send them out hunting for as many different types of rocks as they can find. Then we observe and categorize the rocks according to the standard characteristics used in geology:  hardness, color, layers, foliation, grain size, reaction with acid, etc.  We are careful not to say we’ll ‘identify’ the rocks, because we’ve found it is an unrealistic expectation.  Though we’ve learned much from local and international geologists over the last few years, one of the most important points is that you can’t truly know the composition of a rock unless you’ve got some fancy equipment at a lab.  Acting like you can is not honest teaching.

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At the same time, the proper name and chemical composition of a rock is less important than the characteristics you can discover by means of tests with simple stuff.  These are the characteristics one must consider when choosing a rock to build a house, pave a road, strike a fire, construct a terrace, or sharpen a knife.  So we don’t really need the lab.

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We then do the same process with soils, checking various characteristics that are easily observable.  We bring three special soils (sand, ‘white earth’ heavy in lime, and clay) and they gather the local topsoil.

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One test is about how much water leeches through and how quickly. The mark you can see on the lower bottle was how much water they poured in from the top.  This knowledge is absolutely critical for agriculture, which nearly everyone outside the capital is involved in, and we find teachers get very excited about these simple ways of quantifying these characteristics.

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We’ve developed two models of global warming.  One is creating a little greenhouse with a transparent container and setting out two cups of water in the sun, one under the greenhouse.  The water under the greenhouse gets noticeably hotter after an hour.

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Then we play a marble game, shooting 10 marbles at a wall and counting how many bounce back out past a chalk line.  Then we add 5 rocks into the space and shoot the 10 again, count again.  Then we add 5 more, repeat, and repeat two more times until there are 20 rocks.  The trend is that the more rocks there are in the space, the more marbles get caught inside the line. Rocks represent greenhouse gasses, marbles the sun’s radiation, the wall the earth’s surface, and the line the top of the atmosphere.  Not a perfect model, but in general the results match reality: we put out more greenhouse gases and the atmosphere catches more radiation and warms.

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A nice simple bio activity to do anywhere is to block off a square meter and index what you find living and not living within it.  This is our springboard to teaching about ecosystems.

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We also do a simple demo with erosion, dumping water on slopes both grassy and bare.

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We do two pratika around the concept of natural selection   First we scatter onto a grassy patch 40 pieces each of leaf strips in green, yellow, brown and red, then give teachers one minute to pick up as many as they can.  Mostly they find the red ones, proving the value of camouflage.

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Then we take them back inside for the food free-for-all, giving each group four utensils to use in grabbing corn kernels:  scissors, chop sticks, tweezers and a spoon. The results show that different beaks work best for different foods.

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‘Science is fun!’  That was the main message of the hands-on science education advocates of my youth back in the 20th century.  It sure is: the teachers we work with have a blast at our trainings.  But they also learn concepts that stand to improve the quality of their lives when applied to their fields and local environments.  ‘Better living through science!’ would be closer to the mark here.

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Our training happened to be in the week before the presidential election, and the man of the house where we were staying dressed up in full traditional garb to go to the campaign rally of his candidate.  Some of that is real gold.  The fur on his ankles is from a goat.

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