The starting point for Alice Casselman was young students. In a world where their elders have been abusing the earth, they’ve been powerless. Yet they care. They want to do something useful to counteract, or at least contain, the damage. It is, after all, their future that is at stake.
So Casselman, a 60-year-old, retired, high school science teacher, set out to create a job they could do that would have sound educational benefits and would, at the same time, be scientifically useful.
« Kids today want to do things that are real.’’ she says. « For 20 or 30 years we’ve been teaching the theory of ecology in classrooms, and we’ve been taking kids on field trips to give them some hands-on experience that’ll give meaning to the theory.
« Basically it’s been okay. But these days it doesn’t go far enough. Kids want to be needed.’’
What Casselman zeroed in on was biodiversity. « We’re losing it at an alarming rate,’’ she says. « We need better monitoring so we can improve our early warning system, and so we can find out more about the ability of species to adjust.’’ Here was a job where students and other members of the community could help.
All that was needed was a vehicle. And that Casselman provided by taking an existing monitoring system and, with the help of prominent Canadian scientists, adding standardized guidelines — protocols, she calls them.
For instance, monitoring sites, one hectare in size, must be chosen according to specific criteria. Within the sites, sampling must be done in a strictly controlled pattern of random selection. And observations have to comply with rigorous, written instructions.
It’s the standardizing that will allow results from different sites to be compared.
« Once we can compare,’’ Casselman says, « it’ll make the experience real and relevant for students. They’ll be able to get on the internet, enter their data, and compare it with everyone else’s. They’ll be able to see where their work fits. They’ll get a much better sense of how the world is all connected.’’
What’s more, the results obtained by students will help form a bank of information available to scientists. « This,’’ says Casselman, « is how you root education in the real world.’’
The plan is so sound, that scientists want to participate as well. So, in every area where a site for students is established, a matching site, in an undisclosed location off limits to the public, is being created for the exclusive use of scientists.
Casselman came up with her scheme almost three years ago and began to implement it through the Association for Canadian Educational Resources (ACER), an organization she had formed several years earlier. Two years ago, ACER got a $76,000 grant from Environment Canada.
With that money, and with a lot of donated time and material from individuals and organizations, ACER has established four sets of student/scientist sites in the Niagara escarpment and two more in the Humber River watershed. Now Casselman is searching for sites in eastern Ontario so that long-term environmental consequences of last winter’s ice storm can be monitored.
In addition ACER has published a 43-page booklet, called WormWatch, giving directions on how to establish sites and how to collect and record samples of worm life. It is aimed at grade 10 students and was written with the assistance of Canada’s foremost authority on worms. First drafts have also been completed for similar booklets on birds, trees, flowering plants, and UVB radiation. Last week a further $10,000 grant was received from Environment Canada.
The monitoring to be done on the sites fits within a nation-wide framework called the Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network (EMAN) that is being coordinated by Environment Canada. Its progress can be followed on a website at www.cciw.ca/eman/intro.html. And Casselman, can be telephoned at ACER in Mississauga at (905) 275-7685, or faxed at (905) 275-9420.
To my mind, this is education at its innovative best.