NATURE'S WONDERS WITHIN REACH

RICK KARLIN Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Thursday, October 28, 2004

ALBANY -- Environmental education for a lot of kids means hearing stories about Bengal tigers, endangered whales and other exotic creatures in far away places. David Hopkins and the folks at the College of Saint Rose, General Electric Co. and Livingston Middle School want to change that.


Hopkins, a Saint Rose biology instructor, has recently been bringing Kara Ford's eighth-grade science class from Livingston to the Tivoli Lake nature preserve located just behind the school.


``Use your ears. Use your nose, Use your eyes,'' Hopkins implores the students as they stroll along a dirt path leading to the lake. He points to a tree just yards from Tivoli Lake and asks the kids what they notice. One student points out woodpecker holes, prompting Hopkins to exclaim ``we're looking at a woodpecker supermarket here!''


Woodpeckers are the least of it. In the 20 minutes that Ford's students have been outdoors, Hopkins has thrown a dizzying array of concepts at them. See that spruce just outside of Livingston's entrance? It's more than a big tree. It's a photosynthetic autotroph, or organism that gets its energy directly from the sun through photosynthesis, Hopkins said.


``Write that down,'' said Ford, who checked to make sure her students -- who also have plastic sample bags -- are taking notes on their clipboards.


There's more, said Hopkins. Students on previous trips have seen a red-tailed hawk flying in front of the school and Hopkins urges them to keep an eye out for the predator. He also touches upon the population explosion among microbes known as protists that inhabit Tivoli Lake.


Ford's students seemed to enjoy the brief field trips they have been taking several days a week, both for the fresh air and the hands-on look at the natural world.


``I like the fact that you can explore,'' said Stephanie Trinidad, 13.


``It lets us get out of school to walk,'' adds Adrian Kirkley, 13.


``The fact that you are hearing these kids go `ooh' and `aah,' that's phenomenal,'' said Ford.


Hopkins, who is coordinating the project known as TREE-T, or Teacher Resources in Environmental Education and Technology, is taking students from 39 mostly urban schools in the Capital Region to places like Tivoli Lake.


The idea is to bring an understanding of ecology home, literally, to students who might not otherwise realize what's in their back yards.


Funded by an $80,000 grant from the General Electric Foundation, project TREE-T has several goals.


It aims to get science teachers and their students to understand that they don't need to travel far to view the wonders of nature, if they just keep their eyes open and have a good understanding of what's going on their back yards.


The protist population growth, for instance, is puzzling biologists worldwide and Tivoli presents a prime example of the phenomenon.


Students in other schools have traipsed through the Pine Bush and the banks of the Mohawk River in Schenectady.


``What we're trying to show people is that you don't have to go very far to have environmental labs,'' Hopkins said.


In addition, students across the state have to take a Regents science exam in order to graduate from high school and biology is one of the most popular science options. The field trips help students develop scientific reasoning skills, including understanding the complex relationships of an ecosystem.


And the focus on urban schools is an effort at getting more minority kids hooked on science, noted GE spokeswoman Chris Horn. Horn said company employees are also volunteering to help out in some schools.


GE is engaging in some enlightened self-interest, Horn explained, as technology driven companies like hers realize they need future scientists and cannot afford to overlook the potential talent pool in the nation's urban schools. ``We're increasing scientific literacy,'' added Hopkins. Rick Karlin can be reached at 454-5758 or by e-mail at rkarlin@timesunion.com.