WATSONVILLE — In a large, sunny field late Monday morning, about two-dozen Pajaro Valley Unified School District teachers were down on their knees, taking a close look at the plants, animals and other things they found.

The brief activity at the Fitz Wetlands Educational Resource Center included counting the flora and fauna, and making a short video about their findings.

The lesson was part of the three-day Science Learning Leaders Institute, a first-of-its kind project created to pair environmental science educators with classroom teachers.

The inaugural three-day session included a teacher from each of the district’s elementary schools.

Sponsored by Change Scale and Monterey Bay Aquarium, the project was launched as a way to incorporate outdoor “experiential learning” into the traditional classroom setting, said PVUSD Science and Career Technical Education Coordinator Rob Hoffman.

The idea, Hoffman said, is to connect teachers with outdoor education providers, and help them create lessons that develop environmental literacy while incorporating Next Generation Science Standards.

After the session, the participating teachers can return to their schools and share what they learned with their fellow teachers, Hoffman said.

The project, which took one and a half years to plan and involved Life Lab, Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve and Watsonville Wetlands Watch, is one of the first times such a collaboration has occurred, Hoffman said. Next year’s session will include middle school teachers.

“It’s a really unique partnership,” he said.

Hoffman said that the program will include five follow-up sessions.

Hoffman said he wanted to get away from the notion of outdoor education as a one-time “field fun” experience such as a field trip.

“We want it to be fully embedded in the classroom,” he said. “We wanted bring environmental science providers together with teachers to create a sequence of lessons that connect the classroom with experiential education.”

Organizers say the overarching idea is that the teachers will return to their schools and share what they learned with their colleagues.

“It’s important to bring kids out of the classroom,” said Monterey Bay Aquarium Teacher Program Manager Mary Whaley. “It builds a sense of place for students, especially in their own environment.”

Starlight Elementary School second-grade teacher Erin Levi said she notices a difference in her students after taking them on field trips to Watsonville Slough and to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

“My students have been more interested in learning since I started incorporating environmental science into my lessons,” she said. “They loved it because they were outside, they were touching things, they were seeing things and they were asking questions about what they were seeing.”

Watsonville Environmental Education Coordinator Tami Stolzenthaler said the workshop gives teachers the tools they need for environmental education.

“Things like this are what we have wanted to happen for 20 years,” she said. “We have always wanted to educate our elementary school kids and our community about the importance of keeping our environment healthy.”

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