Learning to Love – Loving to Learn

April 2nd, 2019

In the summer of 1970, I owned a quiet patch of moss- covered earth overlooking the waters of a small stream. I inhabited this spot during my daylong stream adventures, a place to plot and plan, to recount the discoveries of the day, and to simply take inventory of my heart.

I spent much of my youth in the wild, a feral child, in the treetops spying on birds, in meadows with my insect friends, and in the undergrowth in adopted bush houses. A sprawl of wild meadows, fallow farmland and forested parkland surrounded our small and emerging development. Nature spoke to me in clear and eloquent tones, luring me to a range of habitat and opportunity. The stream, however, called loudest, and was a favorite haunt for years.

We are drawn to moving water, not just for childhood adventure or aesthetics, but because it is in our DNA. The quest for water has been a constant in our evolution, making or breaking civilizations. We cannot live more than three days without water. We are water creatures, 60 percent water. We are like streams, water flowing through us.

So I surrendered to this truth, this attraction, long ago. If there is magic in this world, it is in water. I have always known this, and embraced this. I have been lucky to affirm this notion through my work for decades. Creek love.

Thirty-five years ago, I was hired to work at the young Summer Camp at the Watershed. Thrilled to learn that the Stony Brook was part of our terrain, we ushered dozens of children to this wild setting on hot summer days to inhabit their imagination and sense of wonder.

stick boat
my imagination
runs ahead of me

A scaly-barked river birch reaches over the water for the light. Still green foliage dangles at the end of a long arc, the resting spot for the rattle of the kingfisher. Below, on the water’s reflective surface, circular ripples collide as unseen creek chub feed on small insects.

Summer campers, we sit just downstream, some of us on the exposed roots of a sycamore, others on the cool, damp earth. Further downstream, others are looking for crayfish or salamanders, distracted by a wriggling assortment of aquatic insects. We are all trapped in this eddy of wonder.

Some students bring me their quarry seeking answers or just sharing joy. Others simply relish the magic as the water runs over their feet. A stick boat race breaks out and before long, we are all moving downstream pulled to some unknown destination.

Every year experiences like these are the foundation of the camp. Through direct experience, and through the heart, campers learn about clean water and aquatic life and our role in the ecosystem. From our earliest days, we have used this approach with many of our public programs as well. Our work with schools, lacking the luxury of time, has evolved with a stronger and critical focus on scientific inquiry.

the shadows
in Stony Brook

At water’s edge, listening to the riffle music, the students ponder the question. Can the fish they just met in the aquarium at the Watershed Center, thrive in this brook? Quietly surveying the scene, students begin to offer their ideas about what they want to consider. “Is the water clean?” “Is there food present?” “What does the fish need?” Soon an investigation takes shape as the students are transformed into a community of scientists.

Tasks are identified, the labor is divided, and students are soon shin-deep in data. Some identify macroinvertebrates – food items and water quality indicators- while others test and measure the water, checking depth and clarity, and determining the presence of nutrients and pollutants. After sharing and weighing data, the students make their claim, “arguing” from the evidence they have uncovered.

The magic of water is fully tangled with the wonder of science. Students discover that the processes of science are a journey to discovery. They relish the role and take ownership of what they have learned. These lessons conclude as all good science lessons should – with exclamation points. And question marks.

We are empowering the next generation to take charge of this complicated world. Last year we began engagng students to engineering challenges at the Watershed Center. Students grapple with real world issues and design solutions for a better world.

the way back home
American shad

One fish is swimming in circles, as if trapped in a powerful vortex. Another races from one side of the river to the other, like a caged cat in a zoo. Others zig and zag, converging and crashing into each other before dispersing and repeating the behavior.

The students lean over the river, at first quiet and hopeful, then audibly urging the fish on. Cheering erupts when one fish finds the fish ladder and works its way past the dam. A second fish approaches the fish ladder, turning away at the last second before another darts its way up the ladder. The children dance like the Peanuts gang on fast forward.

This river is indoors, a model, and the fish are small, colorful bots. The river in this scenario was dammed long ago, blocking the passage of migratory fish. The students are challenged to design a solution that allows fish to migrate and breed while leaving the dam in place.

Working in teams, students collaborate, and learn to work as engineers, using imagination and calculation to solve the problem. They design and test solutions, shop for building materials, and share their results, applauding wildly at success. They love the challenge, and they love creating solutions.

water running
through my heart

Streams have always been an integral part of my love affair with the natural world. Likewise they have been a key component of our program repertoire and out classroom on the Watershed Reserve and beyond.We are investing in a future populated by decision-makers who understand and embrace science. We are investing in a future where skilled engineers identify problems and design solutions in a world inhabited by nearly 8 billion people and counting. We are committed to providing a well-calculated and diverse array of learning experiences to help get us there. We believe that a key component of this is direct engagement with the natural world. Out there, our inborn sense of wonder creates a thirst for knowledge and instigates a vast amount of learning. It can be easy to fall in love with this world…just add water.

-Jeff Hoagland, Education Director
“Speaking of Nature, Spring 2019”

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