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Learning in Forest Ecosystems: Students gain ecological literacy

Kip Brady’s biology 2 classes began shooting video clips with a Sony XDCAM last spring. They were able to purchase the camera, thanks to a grant from the Ohio Environmental Education Fund. Part of their goal is to produce videos that teach about biological diversity and factors affecting it.


“The current project grew from a long series of projects that we have developed here at New Philadelphia High School over the past 18 years,” said Kip Brady, biology and chemistry teacher at New Philadelphia High School. “When I started teaching, I discovered that my students and most adults knew very little about the local environment, its history and the effects of this history on biodiversity.”

Brady has now found a home base that encompasses all his projects and will allow him to nurture and share the program. “My students have been learning in forest ecosystems for a long time,” Brady said. “As I was developing a grant proposal last year, I was trying to think of what to call the project, and suddenly all the different projects we’ve done over the years became unified with a formal name: the LIFE Project.”

The apropos acronym LIFE stands for Learning in Forest Ecosystems.

Innovation and accolades are not new to Brady. Last year he was recognized as the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s 2016 Conservation Educator of the Year. He also won a Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators.

The primary focus of this research has been to compare two types of local forests. Brady said, “When I first moved to this area in the late 1990s, I noticed that although much of the landscape is forested, the forests fall into two distinct categories: those that are growing atop land that may have been used for agriculture or timber and those that are growing atop unreclaimed surface coal mines.”

These unreclaimed forests comprise 40,000-60,000 acres in Tuscarawas County. The state calls these areas abandoned mine land.

“The LIFE Project is really the next generation of my ideas for getting people out to learn about local biodiversity, its importance and factors that are affecting it,” Brady said.

The most recent portion of the LIFE Project was funded by the Ohio Environmental Education Fund.

Although Brady initiated and developed the project, wrote the grant, and sometimes even drives the bus, he is quick to credit the ideas to a group effort. The science teacher collaborated with his wife Jody Brady, co-teacher Mark Limbaugh, students and many other elementary teachers. “The grant writing becomes easy when you have good ideas, and these ideas are really the result of our collective experience.”

Brady explained some of the global perspective that motivates the LIFE Project and its expansion. “Understanding science is a big part of why we do these projects, but we also feel that knowing about the species that surround us enriches people’s lives and empowers them to become better citizens. More than ever before people need to be savvy about how our behavior affects everything else. We are living in the midst of a mass extinction on par with the one that brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs.”

The LIFE Project is intended to increase awareness about biodiversity and the environments required to sustain current species. Additionally the hope also is to educate people about acting in a way that preserves this biodiversity.

When Brady first began taking students out in the field to study forest biodiversity, it was just his biology classes and his wife’s classes. From there the project grew in leaps and bounds.

“After talking with a few of our elementary teachers, I decided it would be cool to see how the same sort of study would go if we engaged high school students with elementary students ... Soon we were taking all of the high school’s biology students and all of the district’s fifth graders out to do these collaborative field studies, comparing the biodiversity of forest ecosystems.”

Currently the program has expanded further to include kindergartners.

But that’s not all. Brady said, “The next logical step seemed to be developing projects in which students could bring their families along to examine local biodiversity, and that is where we are now trying to develop further projects that broaden the reach of these experiences and connect more directly some of what is happening in our school with the community.”

The program works closely with existing academic standards. “There is actually a specific statement in the science standards for kindergarten,” Brady said, “about the need for them to learn about local species from reading nonfiction texts, so that is how we developed the high school kindergarten project that we call

Forest Stories. To engage students and their families, we developed the Forests at Night project, which involves us leading night surveys through forests to document amphibians and other nocturnal species.”

The research done by students is ongoing and activities are designed to be publishable. Brady said, “Our goal is to do real science that can be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals ... We currently have three different research projects that our students will be presenting at the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Student Wildlife Research Symposium in April.”

Another goal is to make science accessible to the community beyond the classroom. “A big part of our work here at New Philadelphia High School is to be communicators of science. There is a tendency for scientific knowledge to be inaccessible to most people, and this makes science an abstract thing ... Our philosophy is that if you don’t know about it, then you can’t care about it. This is probably the greatest threat to biodiversity.”

None of the LIFE Project activities would be possible without access to the land. Brady shared his gratitude to all of the private landowners and also to the Norma Johnson Center, Camp Tuscazoar and the Wilderness Center.

“In all of these projects,” Brady said, “students are learning science by doing science, but they are also learning about a diversity of species that live in our region, their habitat requirements and the roles they play in our environment. Taken together, these experiences facilitate the development of an ecological literacy that our society desperately needs.”

To see what students involved in the LIFE Project have been working on, visit www.natureandeducation.com. For information regarding the LIFE Project or to offer forested land to be used in research, visit www.bradyk7.wixsite.com/natureandeducation.

Published: February 17, 2017
New Article ID: 2017702179993