Digging in the dirt to learn about science

Lisa Alvarez’s fourth-grade students head to a local park to study science

by: Kate Wennerstrom/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A fourth-grade class at Ochoco Elementary is preparing for an out-of-the-classroom science course.

As fourth-graders, the idea of sitting in a classroom studying science can seem a little drab.
   For Lisa Alvarez's class at Ochoco Elementary, learning about trees, insects and the environment takes on a whole new meaning with outdoor activities.
   "Right along the river there's a little park behind the public library," Alvarez said. "It has a parking lot, play structure and a little trail that makes a loop along the river. That's where I take my fourth graders every year, as a service learning project. It's a hands-on time where it's OK to get dirty."
   On Monday, her class will walk to the park and plant a willow tree, which came to the school through a donation from the Oregon Department of Forestry.
   "It popped up that a $50 tree planting grant was now available for Oregon teachers," Alvarez continued. "I went ahead and applied for it because my class was going to be adopting the library park. Just having that correlation with that park and knowing a tree was available -- I thought the kids would like it."
   With the young willow tree being planted, the following week, Alvarez's class will be taking their second trip to the park to beautify the area.
   "They'll have great big litter bags and they'll have gloves," she said. "Then they go pull weeds in a certain area. We pull weeds first and pick up litter -- any trash, glass, things like that. It usually works for about an hour and then they're tired of that. So then we'll take a picture of how much we get accumulated by the trash can."
   With a sense of accomplishment, the students will come back to the park the next week to bring more color to the park.
   "We'll go over and plant the butterfly attracting bushes and flowers," Alvarez said.
   To top off the outdoor course, Alvarez's class will be releasing painted ladies, a butterfly found throughout the region.
   "We have the butterfly habitats here in the classroom," she said. "I send off for the larva and when they get here the kids will adopt these little larvae. They're going to get a little booklet for studying the lifecycle of a butterfly."
   Once the butterflies have hatched, the class will release them in the newly rejuvenated park.
   "This is my first time with butterflies, so we'll have to see when they're ready. It might coincide with the science fair that we're having here at school so the rest of the classes can see the butterflies that we grew and hatched," Alvarez continued. "Then we'll carry them over and release them."
   As the class learns the positive affects of helping the environment, they also get the satisfaction of beautifying a local park by getting their hands dirty.
   "They are excited to learn about science and nature this way," Alvarez said. "It'll be fun."