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Promoting Mutualism since 1997

by Ariel Burns, guest writer

A sprightly young child with a toothy grin tugs tirelessly at your shirt. He wants you to comment on his sea-berry-eating dolphin that he has drawn in his journal. He explains how his creation illustrates mutualism, a type of symbiotic relationship in which both organisms benefit.

Another child beckons you shyly. As she points out, her drawing consists of a top-hat creature riding upon the head of a dragon. She explains that meanwhile the dragon wins style points with its elegant counterpart, the top-hat creature gets a free lift. After a compliment or two, you raise your head and spy an effervescent sea of children vying for your attention. You smile back, take a deep breath, and proceed with one journal at a time. This is merely a glimpse into a day in the life of an EcoTeam member.

What is the EcoTeam, you ask? Why, it’s simply the bee’s knees! Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s the group of folks explaining to third-graders what the bee’s knees do. In short, Warren Wilson College’s EcoTeam operates as a vivacious cohort of environmental educators. Approximately ten times in a week, this work crew travels to elementary schools all over Buncombe County to engage third-graders in environmental science. There are currently six students who work on EcoTeam, which is a program below the Environmental Leadership Center (ELC) located on the third floor of Morse. Supervisor Stan Cross oversees the student work crew and empowers its members to take initiative in curriculum refinement and other education-related projects.

First conceptualized in a program written by Warren Wilson alum Julia Shaw in 1997, the EcoTeam curriculum has become a distinctive feature of the work program. This program was conceived in the Program Planning course, designed for students within the Outdoor Leadership and Environmental Education majors. To this day, Julie’s creation continues to be refined by the crew to produce top-notch results.

A beautifully illustrated EcoTeam journal was designed specifically with the lessons in mind. Students are reminded that the journals are theirs to keep; EcoTeam members insist that the students will not be graded on what they write or draw inside. It helps them follow along during activities, as well as provides an engaging story that weaves together themes from the lessons. The eight-module curriculum has been adopted by colleges nationally, with activities altered to suit the bioregion in which the chapter operates.

For example, the very first lesson uses topographical relief maps to ground third-graders in the French Broad River Basin. This sets the stage for further investigation of the important geological, biological, and ecological features of the region. Throughout the curriculum students explore concepts surrounding soil composition, the water cycle, animal and plant interactions, and human activities as they are woven into this river basin. As tactful educators, the EcoTeam members aim to plant the seeds of care and responsibility for the environment that focuses on the awe and wonder of the natural world. Students learn practical actions they can take to practice environmental citizenship and have a blast doing it!

The curriculum is correlated with the North Carolina Standard Courses of Study, which dictate the learning goals and objectives expected of third-graders statewide. The EcoTeam lesson plans incorporate objectives from several subjects including art, reading, writing, and natural science. EcoTeam lessons promote experiential education through activities like owl pellet and flower dissections, soil investigation, and a water droplet visualization where students are taken on a “journey” through a day in the life of a water droplet falling from a raincloud to the French Broad River Basin below. Regardless of the topic at hand, the EcoTeam’s lessons are always bursting with passion for the subject matter and foster a genuine interest in the natural world among the third-graders that are reached.

As a work crew, this program is well-suited for students wanting to work in an educational field. Pedagogical concepts are explored through analysis of the challenges crewmembers face as “guest” educators in a traditional school setting. Despite the adversities, they are able to develop strategies for classroom management through practical teaching experience. They continually hone their professionalism and facilitation skills as they work within institutions which may not offer the ideal learning environment for budding minds (e.g. the ever-dreaded indoor classroom, replete with fluorescent bulbs and ungodly hours). These opportunities for hands-on teacher training present EcoTeam members with critical feedback that can be used to refine their own teaching style, thus equipping them for educational adventures they might encounter in the future.

All in all, the EcoTeam program showcases mutualism at its finest; it is a win-win situation for both the Warren Wilson educators-in-training and the third-grade classrooms reached with the curriculum. Warren Wilson students interested in observing or participating in a lesson are encouraged to speak with crewmembers to schedule an appointment. There are oodles to be gained from these unique opportunities (not mention the added perks of establishing friendships with tons of eight and nine year olds…).


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