Dan Patton is a science teacher at LAS and is developing a Forest Ecology curriculum for the new middle school.
Could you describe some of your field work in science prior to becoming a teacher?
The majority of my work was with the Alaska Dept of Fish and Game. I did eight field seasons over the course of about 10 years. Part of my work was in commercial fisheries research, where we were out interviewing fishermen. We recorded what they were catching that week and sent the information back to the Fish and Game managers. We were out in a little boat driving around in the sometimes crazy waters of Southeast Alaska. I also spent quite a bit of time doing fisheries research up in the rivers where the salmon were spawning, looking at returns.
We spent upwards of three months in the wilderness on some of these projects. By wilderness I mean way out there, like an hour-long flight in a float plane from Ketchikan. We lived in tents and were resupplied with food by float plane once a week. Most of the time we were taking data on adult and juvenile fish, but we also researched large mammals, mostly black bears. Prince of Wales Island has the highest density of black bears in the country, but it’s also one of the most heavily hunted populations. These hunts are fairly new, so the question was what impact hunting had on the population. We collected DNA samples by setting hair snares. The bears would get caught in the snares, which were designed to break after catching a sample of hair. We sent these samples to the lab for DNA testing. Each time a hunter got a bear they were required to bring a sample of that bear into the office. We’d look at the samples from hair snares and killed bears and estimate the population. We also did a lot of work with Sitka blacktail deer. We’d conduct annual transects looking for scat, always in the exact same location, which allowed us to gauge the population changes from year to year.
Was all this before you started teaching?
The vast majority of it was before I was a teacher. I did one season after I started teaching, but all the rest was before.
Were you able to incorporate some that field science into your teaching?
Definitely. When you think about the whole curriculum and all the things that you learn in high school biology and earth science, there aren’t a whole lot of places where you can talk about this kind of field science. But wherever the opportunity arises, I talk about my research. This shows why someone might want to go into science. I also talk about the scientific method with examples from my work. This shows students what attracted me into science in the first place.
Do you find this resonates with students?
Yeah, for sure. I also spent a lot of time commercial fishing and have interesting pictures and videos from commercial fishing. This is pretty impactful to students because they can see the amazing bounty of nature and that there are some places left where these massive wild migrations are still happening. It’s neat to contrast these wild Alaskan landscapes with the vast majority of the world, where these big migrations aren’t happening any more. That’s definitely interesting to kids.
Speaking of contrasts, you came from a spectacular part of the world before moving to Leysin. How would you contrast these places?
If you look in certain directions from Leysin it’s a lot like Alaska. It’s pretty wild looking (from a distance), covered with forests, with giant peaks and glaciers. But when you get into the Swiss landscape, you see that it’s in fact very, very civilized. There are roads everywhere, there’s trails everywhere, there’s villages everywhere. You need to bring francs on a hike here because you’ll probably come across a mountain buvet and will want to get a coffee. This is very different from Alaska, where you’d better be prepared because if the weather changes or you get lost it could be a long time before you’re back in civilization. The natural environment is somewhat similar here, especially at higher elevations. So when I’m hiking in the coniferous forests, I can imagine being in a drier version of Southeast Alaska.
The fact that I’ve been here for five years and I haven’t seen a real old growth forest is very different. I wonder what it was once like here. It’s a shame that we don’t have that comparison in Switzerland. One of the first things that I did with my students in Ketchikan was to take them into the forest right next to our school. This was a second-growth forest, having been cut about 50 years before. We’d spend some time out in the second growth forest looking at the trees. In the fall we’d also look at mushrooms. We’d investigate a small area and then extrapolate the population into a big area. This introduced the concept of ecological sampling. I’d then take them into an old growth, never-cut forest that was 5 or 10 minutes further away. It was fascinating to see their reactions when they saw that, wow, the structure of this forest is so very different. The species were the same, but there’s much more habitat. The big trees offer so many more ecological spaces, called niches. It was great to expose kids to this.
By contrast, here in Switzerland it’s all managed forests. Some are a little older than others, but they’re all very managed and it seems like people have been here forever. The Swiss have done a pretty good job of managing their forests. They look nice. But you don’t ever get a chance to see what that forest would have looked like in its totally natural setting, which is a shame.
How do you think the kids you taught in Alaska reacted to their natural environment, versus how the kids at LAS react to theirs?
My Alaskan students were a lot more comfortable in the forest. They knew how to dress, for one. A lot of them had hunted and gathered with their parents and had grown up playing in the forest. So it wasn’t as alien of an environment for them. By contrast, a lot of students at LAS have never been into the forest before. They’re from the desert, or they’re from the city, and this is the first time they’ve been into a real forest. A lot of the time they react like, “I don’t like this, I don’t want to be out here, this is scary, I don’t like ants, I don’t like being cold.” But most of them come around pretty quickly. By the third or fourth time they’re excited to go outside. They’ve learned that they need to wear warm clothes and sturdy shoes. It’s rare that I get a student who’s been out a few times and still resists it. This is nice to see. That’s kind of my goal.
How much do you take them out?
Previously, depending on the weather, it was anywhere from four to five times over the course of a school year. But this year we’ll probably be out 10 or 15 times in the fall and the spring.
So you’re increasing the amount of time that you’re spending outside with students?
Yeah, as the years go by and I’m able to refine the projects, it makes sense to spend more time outside. I find more areas of crossover between the curriculum and the outdoor environment.
What do you feel about using citizen science as an approach to studying the outdoor environment?
I really like it because I think students want to think that what they’re doing is going to lead to something. Or that what they’re studying is going to have some kind of impact on their lives. The idea that the information they’re collecting can actually add to scientific knowledge is enough to get some kids interested. I think our approach still needs a lot of developing. For example, it would be nice to have concrete examples to show that this is really being used by scientists. Doing the LETS study year after year, even if scientists aren’t immediately picking up the information, will allow students to see that their data have actually gone somewhere. What they’re doing this year will be passed down to next year’s students, and so on. I think that pulls in some kids who otherwise would be less interested.
Do you think there’s value even for the students who aren’t pulled in?
Definitely. It teaches them more about science. There are a lot of kids who start off thinking they don’t like science, so anytime you can show them that maybe what they’re doing can have an impact, I think this can be good for those kids. But the idea needs more development. We need to have concrete examples as to where the information is going. We should look at other examples of citizen science in the world, other ways that regular citizens have collected information that has been useful and has had an impact on science. For example, I want to look at the annual Audubon Christmas bird count. Citizen bird watchers have been going out on the same days every year for over a century, counting the birds that are in their front yard. After all this time the data have become really rich. You can see migratory patterns, notice changes, and compare those changes to things like the climate. Anytime we can connect what we’re doing to something bigger in the world, I think that’s good. I think this is something that we need to keep developing.
How long do you think it will take to bring our citizen science to where you’d like it to be?
I think as soon as next year, when we start having iterations of this data coming in. We might already be able to see some changes. As soon as we have a couple sets of data coming in and students can see differences between the years, they’ll start wondering why those differences exist. Was it because there was actually a change, or was it because we didn’t do a very good job of following the protocols, or what’s going on here? They’ll start thinking about science more. Not just someone else’s science, but the science they’re doing themselves. They’ll wonder, “What’s wrong with the protocols; how can we make them better?” I think this will come pretty quickly.
It’s going to take a while for the data to start adding up and for the protocols to be thoroughly worked out. Do you think there’s a rush to get these things finalized, or is there time to work out the process?
I don’t think you can rush something like this. I think it’s also going to be helpful as we develop interest in the community. More people will start understanding what we’re doing.
By community, do you mean the LAS community, the Leysin community, or schools in general?
i think all of that. The LAS community, especially for the younger grades, now has a much better idea what’s going on after many teachers participated in LETS Day last October.
Is there buy-in from the teachers?
I think anytime something new comes along, people’s initial reaction is to resist change, to ask “Why am I doing this, how is this going to benefit me?” But because we had really nice weather during LETS Day, and because it was fairly well organized, I think the vast majority of teachers had a good time and that the kids mostly understood what they were doing. It was generally a positive experience and most teachers are amenable to trying it again. These teachers will be able to support the kids better next year because they’ve done it once already. We also need to better support teachers who come from outside the sciences. And we need to ensure that the data aren’t just disappearing into the ether, that they’re somewhere where they can be accessed and used. But I think the buy-in level is good.
What do you think about the cross-curricular opportunities with LETS? Do you think this study can be expanded from pure science into something that brings in more teachers from diverse fields?
There’s a lot of potential for that. We made a huge leap forward when we included the geography department this year. Geography is a no brainer. We have to understand the geography of the land before we can understand its biogeography. There’s also a lot of potential for math teachers to become involved. I don’t think we’ve reached out well to the math teachers this year. But we have to do all this in pieces. We don’t want too much change at once. So now that we’ve found ways to include geography, I think the next step will be math. Writing plays a big part in this, too. We want kids to become reflective, writing down what they’ve done and how this might prove useful to science. And then there’s journalism. Kids can tell their peers what they’re doing. Art has great potential. Since our goal is to get kids interested in their local environment and being outside, art might be the bridge that reaches some students. Photography is obvious, but also painting and filmmaking. There’s a lot of potential for more cross-curricular cooperation. But it’s probably not going to happen purely organically. It will require that we focus on this, creating some goals and looking for clear connections to get those teachers fully on board. We need to supply ideas, but also to listen to these teachers. One of the areas where we kind of dropped the ball this year was in not having a meeting with teachers soon after LETS Day in October to ask for their feedback. We sent out a survey, which yielded lots of ideas. I think that was a huge step. We’ll go back and look more closely at that information. But it would be good to schedule some facetime with these teachers to get their gut reaction on how it went and how they can be more involved. This would be a good thing to do with next spring’s Group 4 LETS Day.
The spring LETS Day is built around the IB Group 4 project for the 11th grade. What you launched last fall was for 8th through 10th grades. What differences do you see between the two groups? Can they focus on the same things, or do they need to be different?
In terms of getting good science, it’s important that the two field days do a lot of the same things. Obviously, getting two sets of data per year is better than getting just one. If we could go out four times doing the same thing, that would be even better. However, the students in 11th grade are a bit more sophisticated. They can carry out different kinds of data collection than students in 8th or 9th grade. Also, one of the goals of the Group 4 project is to be relatively self directed. They need to investigate something they actually want to study, and to do interdisciplinary work with student chemists, biologists, physicists, and environmental scientists. They should keep looking at certain types of data, but they should also have the freedom to explore what they most want to study.
Won’t that be a challenge? If students are doing their own projects, there won’t be the consistency of data that’s needed for long-term science. Would satisfying one need come at the expense of the other?
Sure, but as the years progress and the students learn what to do, a lot of the standard data collection will come a lot quicker. When these students already know how to set up the plots and to identify the trees, they’re going to be able to take care of that stuff a lot faste. And then they’ll have the afternoon to work on their own project ideas.
Any thoughts on working together with other schools on this, or on having other schools pick up on the LETS project and doing one themselves?
That’s really beneficial. Any time that students can make connections with students in other schools and can see that a project is bigger than just them, that’s useful. From the scientific point of view, the more places this can happen, the more useful data we’re going to collect. I think our job is to facilitate this by making the protocols easy to understand. They need to be as simple and cheap as possible. This will make it much easier for other schools to pick up.
What about GLOBE Day? Where did it come from and how is it useful for citizen science?
Students need a venue to present what they’ve done. Anytime a student sees that what they’re working on has a larger audience, that’s going to give them more intrinsic motivation to do a good job. When kids work in groups and can learn from other students, that’s a very good life experience. When this is based on an authentic project that has a clear goal and a destination, that’s going to motivate them even more strongly.
Does the process of a doing a project followed by giving a presentation apply outside of the sciences?
Definitely. It applies throughout the curriculum and all the way through college, grad school, work, and life. These are the skills successful people need. When the audience is just the class or the teacher, students are often less motivated to do a good job, aside from earning a grade. The GLOBE Day presentations are a good way to supply more intrinsic motivation.
Will inviting students from other schools help with that mission?
Audiences of peers are useful. This seems to make sense. But we haven’t done it yet; we haven’t really introduced the idea to the kids yet, at least not in depth. But I think it will peak their interest. It makes sense: this will provide a bigger audience of their peers. You always want to impress your peers; you don’t want to look silly in front of them. People want to show that they’re smart, that they can do a good job.
What about “adventure science”, or “extreme ecology”? Any thoughts on how that might be motivating to students?
It’s definitely a hook. The idea is great, but it will take a lot of organization, a lot of planning. Finding a place to fit it in is going to be a bit of a challenge. But i definitely think it’s going to be exciting to kids. One of the big things I want is for kids to have fun when they’re doing science. I want it to be exciting for them. As a teacher it’s so much nicer, so much more stimulating when the kids are having a good time. When the kids are having a good time, the teacher is having a good time. And the kids actually learn more when they enjoy it–when they want to go out and do it again, as opposed to, “Oh, we have to go and do that again”. Here in Leysin we have a lot of places where we can do this “extreme ecology”. It will be interesting to see how this concept progresses considering safety and time constraints, but I think it’s definitely worth pursuing.
You’re active with the International Award and the Alpine Club as well. These all seem to tie into your goal of getting kids outside. This isn’t exclusively about science for you, it’s also about appreciating nature.
Exactly. It’s pretty natural for people to appreciate nature. When you’re in nature, it’s hard not to see its beauty. But it’s kind of an acquired taste for some. It takes being out there in different weather conditions, in different seasons, and seeing how things change. As adults we have these places that we go back to periodically. It’s exciting to watch trees grow and to see how the environment looks different in different weather and seasons. It’s hard not to appreciate nature when you’re out there in it. And once you start to appreciate it, I think it’s hard not to want to protect it and to make sure that future generations have the same opportunities.
If there’s one thing that these kids are going to be doing in their future, it’s making decisions about nature and taking care of the earth. It’s a cliché, but these kids are the future. I want kids leaving my classes to appreciate not only the beauty of nature, but also the function of nature, the jobs that nature does, the jobs the ecosystem does. Our kids will be making big decisions about this in the future.
Can you tell me about your class soils project?
Today we finished this big project in my earth science class where we’re looking at soil, why we need it, what are some of the impacts on soil around the world, and what humans are doing to affect it. We’re not just looking at the negative, but also at solutions. What can people do to improve the soil, to conserve and protect it? It’s important to be optimistic. You certainly need to show kids the negative aspect–you can’t let them think the world is a rosy place when it come to ecology. In Switzerland that’s sometimes hard to do because the landscape seems very natural. The Swiss have done a really good job of showing how with foresight and management you can have the best of both worlds: You can have the forest as habitat, but you can also use it. You can get a lot of benefit from a managed but relatively natural ecosystem. But that’s not the situation in most of the world. Students need to see what’s happening in the rest of the world, and to realize that humans are causing a lot of damage. They need to come up with solutions to problems that will affect their own future.
So our soil study has been pretty interesting project. At the beginning of the year we made the soil ourselves, then planted seeds of various garden vegetables. This fall we’ve tracked their growth. At the end of this unit on soil we harvest our plants and we eat them. We have a final party where everyone sits at the table and eats the fruits of their own labor. That’s a pretty interesting experience that shows the kids not only where their food comes from, but also shows them, “Wow, this takes a lot of work”–we’ve worked on this for three months and basically all we have is one salad each. It demonstrates how essential soil is. It can be hard for students to grasp why we need the forests and how they impact our lives. It’s easy to say that the forest produces oxygen, but it’s hard to make that tangible. It’s easy to say that a forest produces all these resources, but we need to show kids this as opposed to just telling it to them. We tell things to kids all day long and 99% of the time they’re not really going to hear it. But I think if they can get out there and experience it themselves, at least for some of them this drives the point home.
Yesterday we cut three of the plants. We have this experiment where we measure differences between plants that are grown directly under light versus plants that are on both sides of the light. We had control groups and turned this into real hands-on science. We’ll be graphing those data and using these graphs to back up our hypothesis that the plants closest to the light grow the most. It’s a classic study for biology classes all around the world. One of the things I tell my students is that they should have their own gardens when they get older. When you have a garden you’re going to see that you’re going to have to take care of its soil. You won’t want to damage your own soil; you wouldn’t ever want to pollute your soil or lose your own soil to erosion. Now think about the earth as your own place. You won’t want that damage to happen anywhere, whether it’s down here in the Rhône Valley or out in the Congo. We’ve already seen that humans can impact the whole earth, so humans have to come together to conserve and protect the whole earth.
You mentioned that this is a wonderful age group. What do you think about working with this younger group of students versus older or IB students?
In terms of freedom of curriculum at this school, it’s really really neat to be able to have the time and the space and the freedom to dive into long-term projects. The IB program is an amazing curriculum and the kids come out of there with a lot of knowledge. But it’s very proscribed and doesn’t leave teachers much freedom to delve deeply into topics. IB students have to know certain things about ecology, but you’d never have time to spend lesson after lesson looking digging deep into some particular study.
What about the students themselves, at this time in their lives?
In eighth grade it’s still very easy to get them excited. Their eyes light up. It’s awesome to see them make connections.
(AI – Dan Patton interview 151120 – long first edit (4280 words))