D65 to expand place-based science education program

Sophia Bollag, City Editor

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 plans to expand a program that teaches about local water issues through dance and movement using federal money the Illinois Coastal Management Program awarded to the district last month.

LakeDance, a “place-based” education program, aims to educate students about Lake Michigan, local water issues and water literacy in general through a kinetic-focused method of learning.

Clare Tallon Ruen, who started the LakeDance program, said elementary school students have told her acting out scientific concepts through dance or with their hands forces them to understand the concepts they are learning. In contrast, simply writing down information they have been taught does not require them to actually understand the concepts, she said.

“Kinesthetic learning is a big thing for me because it helps me learn,” Tallon Ruen said. “And as a parent, one of the heartbreaking things about visiting any school is that kids are sitting a lot.”

The program is already in place in third-grade classes in half of the elementary schools in District 65. The roughly $40,000 grant the district received last month will allow it to expand the program to all third- and sixth-grade science classes.

The money is part of $1.6 million in federally-funded coastal grants for conservation and environmental education initiatives in Illinois that Gov. Pat Quinn (D) awarded to schools and community organizations last month.

(Gov. Quinn grants D65 funding for environmental education program)

The grant will pay for both teacher training and field trips to beaches and the water-treatment facility. It provides enough money to expand the program through the end of next school year, but Tallon Ruen said she plans to look for additional sources of money to fund the program into the future.

Although the program is currently in place for only third-graders, Tallon Ruen said based on interviews with fifth-grade students that she believes the program will be equally effective for older children.

“I think the idea that older kids are going to be served entirely by book learning or lecture or worksheets is a mistake,” she said. “I think it gives those older kids the impression that dance and movement are child’s play, so they are less likely to take it seriously.”

The district chose third and sixth grades for the program because science classes in those grades already have units on water.

The new program will focus the existing water units more on local water issues, said Melanie Mudarth, the science curriculum facilitator for District 65. 

“The purpose of the program is to start using the natural resources that we have, such as the lake,” Mudarth said. “You don’t want third-graders leaving third grade still believing there are sharks in the lake.”

Place-based education encourages students to develop a more eco-friendly mindset toward their communities, said Katie Larson, the education coordinator for the Alliance for the Great Lakes who worked with Tallon Ruen to develop the LakeDance curriculum.

“If a student understands that littering can impact birds at the beach or that using more water in their homes could have an effect on the ecosystem … they can understand (how) to have a positive impact,” she said. “Even a fieldtrip to the beach … can be a great way for them to have a more positive attitude toward learning in general and also toward the Great Lakes ecosystem.”

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