Laura Van Vleet, an eight-grade earth science teacher from DeWitt Middle School, is featured in an article in the Ithaca Journal for an innovative geology program she has implemented in her classroom. In addition to an online database she created during a one-year sabbatical, the article cites her recent field trip to Taughannock Falls State Park, sponsored by the Finger Lakes Institute.
According to Van Vleet, she took the entire eighth-grade, 168 students, to Taughannock Falls State Park on October 3, for an Environmental Activities Day.
“Students were able to select sessions ahead of time and got to participate in three while there,” she explained. The sessions included: Fishing for Beginners; GPS/Geocaching; Birding Quest; Macroinvertebrates; Fossil Hunt; Digital Photography; Geology Walk; Kayaking for Beginners; Beach Stone Tower Building Contest; Model Boat Races; and Buoyancy Activity, among others.
Forty adults including teachers, community volunteers, parents, and specialists from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, Finger Lakes State Parks, and Hobart and William Smith’s Finger Lakes Institute helped lead the activities.
“It was a great day, wonderful weather, gorgeous setting, and the kids loved it,” she said.
The Ithaca Journal article about her database and field trip experiences appears below.
The Ithaca Journal
“Local geology offers teaching tools
Teacher collects data on area land features”
Liz Lawyer • Staff Writer • November 12, 2008
For an eighth-grade Earth science teacher, the Finger Lakes area is a textbook come to life: waterfalls, gorges, rock formations, mineral deposits and evidence of glaciation are all on display.
But the school day doesn’t allow for daily field trips, so DeWitt Middle School teacher Laurie Van Vleet set out to put together a virtual tour through the geology her students see every day.
Van Vleet took a full sabbatical year to collect more than 2,500 images of local geological features, catalogue them through the photo Web site Flickr.com and create an online database accessible not only by any teacher in Ithaca City School District, but anyone who wants to illustrate local land features.
Many of the pictures she took on her own, but others came from the Paleontological Research Institution or other researchers and educators. A Cornell University historian provided pictures of Taughannock Falls over time that illustrated the effect of erosion on the shape of the lip of the waterfall. Van Vleet not only labeled and tagged the photos to make them easy to find, she georeferenced them – electronically tied them to a point on a map to show where they were taken – to give a sense of the area.
Using the database, Van Vleet can take her Earth science classes on virtual field trips that make her lessons relevant and understandable. The database also includes topographical maps and aerial views. By seeing features they’ve been familiar with their whole lives, students can better grasp why something like erosion is important, she said.
“(For example), we have to teach glaciation,” Van Vleet said. “What better place to teach it than locally?”
Van Vleet said research shows that an environmental attachment improves learning.
“Until you know something firsthand, you can’t start to care about it,” she said. “Research has shown that showing things nearby is a motivational hook.”
On this principle, a few weeks ago DeWitt’s entire eighth-grade class took a field trip to Taughannock Falls State Park, sponsored by My Place in the Finger Lakes of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva. The students spent the day in different learning sessions of their choosing. The classes the students could choose from included a fossil hunt, boat racing in Taughannock Creek, bird watching, GPS instruction and geocaching, kayaking and digital photography. They also went on a hike to examine geological features of the park.
Van Vleet said students and teachers who participated rated the day highly, and more people have been getting behind the project.
From the beginning she has had the support of the school district in being allowed a sabbatical last year to pursue the project, she said. She also partnered with the Paleontological Research Institution to access images of fossils for use in the database, and the project now spans several school subjects, including social studies.
“It’s incredible how the geology of the area, like the formation of the bedrock, has influenced the economy,” Van Vleet said. The locations of towns at the ends of the Finger Lakes, like Ithaca, Watkins Glen, Auburn or Canandaigua, shows how geology affected the economy and settlement of the area, she said.
Andrea Volckmar, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at DeWitt, said she used the field trip to Taughannock to teach students about local history; specifically, she taught about the philanthropic work of Robert H. Treman.
Volckmar said whenever she can find a local hook she incorporates it into her lessons. When she teaches about the Civil War, she shows students maps of the area around Trumansburg, which is divided into square-mile plots of land given to soldiers as payment after the war.
“I just thought (the Taughannock trip) worked really well,” Volckmar said. “I like being able to put a face on one of the main people who made these parks available for us.”
At the Paleontological Research Institution, an ongoing project to incorporate local geology into Earth science curriculum fit right into what Van Vleet was trying to accomplish, said Rob Ross, the institution’s associate director for outreach. The institution helped direct her work and provided some images, he said.
“Our project is national in scale,” Ross said, “so in a way she is working on a sort of case example, with a very specific place and very specific piece of this kind of project.”
Ross said the data Van Vleet put together will be useful not only as a general resource for the institution but as an encouragement for teachers in other parts of the country to do something similar.
“We will use it, first of all, as an example of what a very ambitious teacher can do,” he said.