Sixth Graders Become Explorers at Frick Environmental Center Visit

One morning in early October, Ellis sixth graders went on an adventure. They were never very far from the school—Frick Park and Frick Environmental Center are just a short drive from The Ellis School—but their exploration might as well have taken them to another world.
From examining “pancake fungus”—a flat mushroom growing off of tree trunks—to identifying leaves, cracking open horse chestnuts, and sifting through the crumbles of a decomposing log, students got up close to elements of an ecosystem they usually only observe from a distance.

"I haven’t been in a forest with a lot of trees since February, so it felt really good to be around a bunch of trees,” said Ellis sixth grader Maya Al-Bayati. "I felt like the air was fresher and I felt like I could do anything and it would just feel good. It felt good to be there.”

Maya and her classmates are no strangers to the outdoors; many have taken hiking trips locally, biked in Pittsburgh’s parks, or have visited national parks. Claire Janavitz quickly picked up how to follow the orange “blazes” that mark trails in Frick Park based on her previous experience, and Elizabeth Balet said she’s always been a person who picks up leaves and carries them with her. But this was the first time the students had studied the outdoors so intensely.

As part of an extensive environmental science unit, Ellis sixth graders visit the park twice during the school year. They explore the forest in the fall and the streams in the spring, studying biodiversity and examining how invasive species affect the local ecosystem. Prior to each visit, educators from Frick Environmental Center spend time in the classroom at Ellis helping the students to become familiar with the organisms they will encounter at the park.

Middle School Science Teacher Karen Compton said educators bring samples of plants and creek organisms, identification guides, and more into the classrooms. The whole experience is very hands-on and interactive, and that’s the appeal—and the value.

"Any time we have the ability to give kids these experiences, it’s a value-add to education,” Ms. Compton said. "This teaches students to think differently about the world they’re in. It’s one thing to read about something and another to go out into the world and apply it, but the next step is to analyze and interpret it. Students are making  connections and asking questions about what they observe in the park. We are tapping into that innate curiosity that they have. What that does for their mind is remarkable.”

Ellis encourages students to be genuinely curious, intellectually ambitious, and delighted by learning—tenets of the School’s “vibrant intellects” pillar. Ms. Compton said these experiences do just that, allowing students to get to know what is in our own local watershed and ecosystem. Students collect data on these trips, and then put it into tables and analyze it in groups. Ms. Compton said it’s a great exercise—real data is messy—because it leaves room for interpretation and drives great conversations.

Students are able to apply these studies to current events, too. In the spring of 2022, after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, Frick Park naturalists created a lesson about the impact of that event. Students collected data from streams in the area and were surprised to see that the health of those streams had rebounded.
But the best part, Ms. Compton said, is having the time to do this type of study in the first place.

"I think the best part for the students is just having the time to be outside in nature and walk around,” she said. "There was time to pick up a horse chestnut and observe it. We had time to stop and explore things we saw as we were walking along, and to notice how that decomposing log was different from a living tree.”

Giuliana Rhodehamel, Class of 2030, agreed. The sixth grader said she enjoyed learning more about trees and found one with spiders, a wooly caterpillar, a moth, and ants inside. She also learned names of trees that she didn’t know before.

"It was fun seeing what lived in trees,” she said. "Before I knew a maple tree and probably that was it. I probably feel more confident now that I know more of the trees and more about them.”

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