DEC educator works with STEM master teachers, bringing the environment into the classroom
By KATE MOSTACCIO
Collaborating with some of the state’s top teachers, PEF member Drew Hopkins at Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in Delmar is working to create curriculums that will resonate with schoolchildren and add environmental themes into New York science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classrooms.
Hopkins, an environmental educator 2 with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), worked as a middle school science teacher and an administrator for a decade before he joined DEC in 2016.
“That’s part of the reason they brought me in,” Hopkins said, referring to his experience in the school setting. “We thought it would be a good idea to work with the SUNY Master Teachers Program. These are the best of the best. STEM teachers have to be selected for the program and we thought we could amplify our programs by getting them involved.”
The New York State Master Teacher Program is a network of more than 800 public school teachers throughout the state who “share a passion for their own STEM learning and for collaborating with colleagues to inspire the next generation of STEM leaders,” according to the state Education Department website.
Hopkins said DEC began with Capital Region teachers, holding curriculum workshops and working with master teachers to create lesson plans that conform to the state’s Common Core standards and simultaneously educate the students about the environment around them.
“This is something that hasn’t been done before,” Hopkins said of the collaboration with the Master Teachers Program. “It’s somewhat new for DEC and we’re really excited. These master teachers are training to become teacher leaders. They are going to bring these lessons back into their schools.
“It will amplify our impact,” Hopkins said.
To get an idea what these specialized curriculums entail, Hopkins said one of their working titles is “Forest Math.”
“All have environmental components,” Hopkins said. “They are hands-on, connect other disciplines to STEM courses, and all are standards based.”
The curriculums developed with the master teachers seek to engage students by having them develop ideas and come to conclusions based on their own experiences, versus a lecture methodology.
“Students are going through experiences,” Hopkins said. “It helps them connect and in the end they get to their answer. It’s a more personal way for the students to learn.”
The DEC’s workshops are also certified Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE) courses, giving teachers a chance to count them as professional development.
“State Ed started deciding what professional development was high quality enough about four years ago,” Hopkins said. “I suggested to the [DEC] Bureau [of Education] that we get certified.”
Hopkins is also co-coordinator of the Project WET and Project WILD programs.
Project WET, which stands for Water Education for Teachers, is a collection of water-related activities that are hands-on, easy to use and fun for students. It focuses on water’s physical properties, water quality and what impacts it, and peoples’ relationship to water throughout their lives.
Project WILD is an award-winning program focusing on wildlife. The lesson guides help students learn basic concepts about wildlife and their needs through problem-solving skills and exploring responsible human actions toward wildlife and the environment.
Both are CTLE certified and are intended for teachers and non-formal educators working with students in kindergarten through 12th grade, Hopkins said.
“We have a core group of PEF members doing great things,” Hopkins said. “Mary Ronan and I wrote the CTLE application and State Ed accepted it. Mary does education programs at Reinstein Woods in Buffalo.”
Five Rivers, the National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Hudson River Estuary Program, and Cornell University also coordinated Living Environment Institutes during the summer where elementary and middle school teachers learn about incorporating nature and the environment into their classrooms.
This summer, master teachers participated in the institute at Five Rivers.
“The teachers were very complimentary about the institute,” Hopkins said. “We’re bringing a lot of people into the fold. We’re brining experts in education and science together.”
Hopkins was recently recognized by the New York State Outdoor Education Association (NYSOEA) and received the Outdoor Educator Award.
“This honor recognizes the outstanding classroom teacher, environmental educator or interpreter in the association who has used the outdoors to enrich curriculum and/or interpret the natural world in a way that has expanded the environmental appreciation of children or adults,” the NYSOEA stated on its awards page.
Collaborating with New York master teachers has been rewarding.
“It’s been amazing,” Hopkins said. “It started off as conversations, then meetings, and now we’ve been invited to talk to 100 local master teachers. The master teachers are excited about it, too. As we roll this out, the intention is that this is going to go statewide. Every teacher in the state should have access to these programs.”
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