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Today's Family Magazine

Students learn about life science at Holden Arboretum

Jul 01, 2016 11:23AM ● By Today's Family

Instructor Beth Kary displays a mayfly along the banks of a creek.

By Glen Miller • Published July 2016

Several dozen fifth-grade students from Chestnut Elementary School in Painesville waded into a shallow stream along the Lake and Geauga County border in early May to learn about its ecosystem. Each wore boots supplied by the Holden Arboretum, although prior to entering instructor Beth Kary warned they might have small leaks because of prior use.

“Mine's leaking and the water is cold,” cried out one boy.

Replied his companion, “Oh, so what. Maybe a small fish or something will swim in and plug it up. This is fun and better than sitting in school.”

The students were among the children from 22 elementary schools in 11 Lake, Geauga and Cuyahoga county school districts who were gaining life science knowledge thanks to a 13-year-old annual program operated by the Holden Arboretum.

Since its inception in September 2003, more than 5,000 students per year have learned about life science from the arboretum's “Growing Students In Science” (GSS) program, which includes two annual field trips to the Arboretum and a winter in-school classroom visit by its education staff.

Second- through fifth-graders participate in the unique three-year program.

Chestnut Elementary School teacher Sherrie Venman is among those who feel the program provides hands-on education that students wouldn't learn in class.

“Being in an elementary school, you don't have a science lab where creatures are available,” says Venman. “This is one big science lab. It allows students to participate and really get deeply involved, something I think has an impact on students' interest and how they look at life sciences.”

Becky Thompson, GSS program coordinator, says teachers play an important part in the program by attending professional development workshops held throughout the year by the Holden science staff.

Thompson and her instructors, Carolyn Sechnick, Tina Orlando and Beth Kary, each have backgrounds in teaching or wildlife education.

Each year, Thompson says she contacts different school districts interested in providing hands-on life science education to second- through fifth-grade students. As part of the process, she reaches out to their curriculum coordinators so they can incorporate the subjects taught by GSS in their classroom science curriculum.

“So instead of using only textbooks, they are using our curriculum that they can integrate into their classes and then come out here to see and learn things firsthand,” Thompson explains. “After coming here, they then go back to the classroom to discuss and learn more about what they've seen and done here, but it's integrated with what they normally would learn.”

Participating Geauga County school districts include Cardinal, Newbury and Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin, while those in Lake County include Wickliffe, Fairport Harbor, Riverside, Painesville and Perry. Among the Cuyahoga County school systems are Beachwood, Orange, Euclid, Richmond Heights and South Euclid/Lyndhurst.

“We would like to get more schools,” Thompson says. “It's a goal we are working on because we honestly feel this is very beneficial for teachers and students to get out and see what they read about in textbooks. Students learn more by seeing and learning firsthand.”

In-school classes usually are held in February and March. Most school children start at second or third grade and complete the final fifth-grade program, although each grade level studies something different.

“We teach a wide-spectrum of things, from plant and animal life, to fossils, forest ecology and stream ecology,” explains Kary.

Second-graders start the program at the Holden Arboretum Visitors Center by learning about trees and the importance they play in the environment, while third-graders are taught about various kinds of animals and plants, and the ecological role they have in forests.

Fourth-graders go to the Visitors Center to learn about changes in ecosystems, including how certain animals have come and gone from them, and the various processes that have shaped and reshaped the earth over millions of years.

Fossil evidence is used to discover how forests have changed over time and also learn about different ecosystems by studying those available at the Holden Arboretum.

Fourth-graders also go to another part of the Holden Arboretum once during the year to learn about different land forms, while fifth-graders travel to two different sections of the Arboretum, one in the spring to collect data on stream ecology and another in the fall to learn about fields and forests.
They learn the importance of collecting information, identifying specimens and recording that information, Kary says.

“This is all fun, but it's more than just fun––it's learning in a fun way,” Thompson adds. “What we are focusing on primarily is life science and Earth science––two things that are increasingly important to our ecology and sustaining it.”

Fifth-grader Melissa Davis agrees.

“It's really cool walking in a creek and looking at things,” she says. “I never thought I'd like doing this, but it's really interesting.”

The Holden Arboretum is located at 9500 Sperry Road in Kirtland. For more information call 440-946-4400 or visit