CHATHAM – Cape Cod is a great place to teach science.
“We use our environment as much as we can,” said Monomoy Middle School seventh grade science teacher Melinda Forist. It's evident from her students' projects that the natural world is not just something they study in books; they do actual water quality testing, conduct energy efficiency audits and conduct experiments in the field designed to help endangered species survive.
That last project, the creation of a vernal pool environment, is being done in conjunction with several organizations, including the town of Chatham, the Chatham Conservation Foundation and Mass Audubon. In recognition of her leadership of the school's science department, Mass Audubon last week announced that Forist has been named one of three Massachusetts Conservation Teachers of the Year.
“I'm very honored,” she said of the award, which she will receive at Mass Audubon's annual meeting in Worcester today (Nov. 10).
The school's seventh grade science curriculum uses earth, physical and life sciences to connect kids to how people live and use natural resources. “We try to tie it all in to humans, where we live, what impact we have on the environment,” said Forist. She gets particularly energized, she added, when the classroom moves outside and the kids can work in the actual environment they're studying.
“The kids get to go outside and do science, not just read about it,” she said.
The vernal pool project is the perfect example. All three grade levels at the school participated in creating two vernal pools on Conservation Foundation land adjacent to the school, in conjunction with Mass Audubon's Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary Director Ian Ives. The town helped by providing equipment to dig the vernal pools. The idea was to create the specialized environment that allows specific organisms, like the endangered spadefoot toad, to become established and thrive. Because they participated in its creation and regularly monitor it, “the kids own it,” Forist said. It's still too early to determine if the area will evolve into a vernal pool, although it has remained a wetland, despite the summer's dry conditions, she said.
Kids also spend time in the woods near the school observing and recording in their nature journals. They also travel to Muddy Creek to study changes in water quality there.
Studying the natural world as “always been my passion,” said Forist. Originally from Kalamazoo, Mich., she graduated from Grand Valley State University with a degree in biology. She went on to get master's degrees in education and was working at a nature center in Maryland when she learned about an opening at the the National Environmental Education Development (NEED) Collaborative, an environmental science program, administered by the Dennis-Yarmouth, Monomoy and Falmouth school systems in partnership with the Cape Cod National Seashore. Fifth grade students spend a week at the former Pamet Coast Guard Station on Ballston Beach in Truro learning about the environment and conducting various experiments and inquiries.
“I fell in love with the program and the place,” she said. “I still think the NEED program is one of the best I've seen for environmental education.” She served as a teacher and assistant director there until moving over to Harwich Middle School, where she worked for 19 years before the Monomoy merger. She's been at the regional middle school for three years now. She recently worked with a team of Monomoy teachers and the Cape Cod STEM Network to develop a school-wide set of lessons to introduce all students to scientific practices and applications.
Forist, a Wellfleet resident, was nominated for the Conservation Teacher of the Year award by her fellow Monomoy science teachers, and wasn't even aware they'd done so until she received notification from Audubon. The award is giving to teacher at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
“We are delighted to have the opportunity to honor teachers such as Melinda Forist, who are working hard to connect students to their local environment and conservation,” Mass Audubon Director of Education Kris Scopinich said in a press release. “This award acknowledges Melinda’s important efforts as well as her district’s support to utilizing environmental education as a core strategy for engaging students and improving learning in science concepts and practices.”
Making those connections is what's important to Forist, who said her goal is to do “anything we can do to get these kids to understand where we live, how the ecosystem works, and be as literate in science as they can be, because they're our future leaders.”