LOCAL MOM Pamela Snow works for Harvard Forest coordinating a program called Schoolyard Ecology. Established in 1907, Harvard Forest is Harvard University’s 3,500-acre laboratory and classroom. It’s been conducting long-term ecological research onsite since 1988. In December 2014, The BSE Flow’s Katie Martin caught up with Snow — and her daughter, Ursula — to talk about Snow’s work training science teachers in the Mohawk Trail School District and statewide, and what Ursula makes of her mother’s career.
KATIE: How did you get your start in this career?
PAM: I had been a park ranger for a long time and led tours and did educational programs and then decided to go back and get a master’s degree in education, and I taught in the classroom for a couple of years. l’ve combined the work I did as a park ranger and the work I did as a classroom teacher.
For about 10 years I’ve been working as a team with ecologists — scientists who focus on nature and are interested in how different organisms relate with one another. In my case, because I’m in a forest environment, I study certain kinds of trees, plants, and animals in the forest.
KATIE: Where do you work, mostly?
PAM: My main office is at Harvard Forest in Petersham, Mass., but sometimes I work remotely, by computer, from my desk at the Bridge of Flowers Business Center, above McCusker’s Market.
KATIE: Do you teach kids?
PAM: A lot of kids are the classroom ecologists for me. They work at their schoolyard. So they go out and study trees or vernal pools in walking distance of their schools. We have locations all over Massachusetts and a little in New Hampshire and Vermont.
KATIE: Did you start this program?
PAM: I was hired to do this job and there wasn’t really a program in place, so I kind of started it with the ecologists I work with. And the data manager, he’s an important person on my team also.
KATIE [to Ursula]: What is it like for you, knowing your mom’s work.
URSULA: Sometimes I help her sort certain equipment into bags that she takes to workshops to take to teachers and kids so they can measure the trees. And I get to go to all the parties they have.
KATIE: Do you like plant life and trees and stuff?
URSULA: Yeah. But not as much as she does.
PAM: She hasn’t come on fieldwork with me.
URSULA: I want to go out and try it though!
KATIE [to Pam]: Did you want to do this as a kid?
PAM: I had no idea about any of this as a kid. I never had very good science classes in my school. We never did anything real: it was all in textbooks and on slideshows, and I never was inspired by that; I had no interest in science. And somehow, miraculously, I became a park ranger and I learned about trees and became very interested in that.
This is a really great job for me because I love nature now and I want to share that with other people and get them excited about it, and I want kids to be able to learn about science in a much more fun way and get outside and do real science.
KATIE: Did you inspire someone?
PAM: I certainly hope so. I train the teachers, and the teachers work with their students directly, and they they have said their students really get attached to the trees that they’re studying. They also say they’ve become the more popular teachers in the school because then the kids know that they’re the ones who take the kids out. [Laughs.] So then the kids say, Oh, you’re the teacher who takes kids out! I want to be in your class.
[Wayne Kermenski, at Mohawk, principal at Hawlemont Elementary School now, works with Pam’s program.]
Play and exploration make nature real for kids. Teachers verify this all the time: that the program helps kids connect with nature and value the natural world, and therefore end up wanting to protect the natural world. I want people in general to build a connection with the natural world.
For teachers it’s great because their kids want to do it, so it’s something that’s exciting and interesting for them, and they can still build up all the skills they need in science.
And it does relate to the science frameworks that are current in Massachusetts, based on the next-generation science standards from the federal government. So it fits what science teachers are supposed to be doing and covering. It’s better for the older kids [grades 4-6] in the elementary level.
KATIE: How much does it cost?
PAM: All we charge is $50 for the first year that the teacher enters the program. That gives the teacher all the materials they need and training and year-round support. They can send data to us, and questions to us.
It’s a time issue more than anything. Teachers and administrators are under a lot of pressure right now to perform on the MCAS, and at the elementary level right now the big focus is on language arts and math.
And it is easier to teach from a book and do really set activities when you know what the answers are going to be. With real science we wouldn’t know the answer in advance or it wouldn’t be science. In real science we’re investigating something that we don’t know the answer to. In our project we think we know, we have a hypotheses — what we think we know — but we need the data to prove it. And the students learn how that works: when you have a question you don’t know everything about and then a lot of unexpected things can happen.
And then they can collect the data and track it over time. It’s like a relay: Students collect the data in one grade level, and then they move on to the next grade level, and another grade comes up and takes the baton, so to speak, and add the data to collect to that project over time.
That all adds to the data set: Is there a long-term pattern here or not? What is the data telling us? It’s sort of solving the answer to the question.
For more information on Harvard Forest, visit harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu.