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Nature's Classroom : Teachers Learn Games in Project Wild Workshop to Show Students the Harsh Lessons of Life and Death in Animal World

June 09, 1988|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Blinded in a tussle with a porcupine, the black bear groped its way through the forest, pawing the grass in search of food.

Outmaneuvered by the sighted bears in the habitat, the blind bear found only 10 pounds of berries, far less than the 80 pounds of food it needed to sustain life over a 10-day period. Without enough food, the blind bear was bound to die.

The blind bear was actually Azusa teacher Elisa Solorzano. Blindfolded, Solorzano, who teaches fifth and sixth grades at Murray Elementary School, was crawling around with a dozen fellow teachers on the Claremont Colleges campus, playing a game called "How Many Bears Can Live in This Forest?"

The teacher bears, ostensibly searching for food, actually gathered up pieces of construction paper representing various amounts of such ursine yummies as nuts and insects.

The teachers were learning how to teach key concepts of environmental education to their elementary school students using a nationally distributed ecology curriculum called Project Wild. The occasion was a recent workshop on Project Wild sponsored by the Pomona Valley Audubon Society.

Besides teaching about the behavior of black bears, the game illustrates the idea of "carrying capacity," the number of animals a particular area can support in terms of such essentials as food, water and shelter.

What became obvious in the course of the game, as the teachers competed like rambunctious bear cubs for a finite amount of construction-paper food, was that the number of animals a particular area can support is limited. Only one in eight of the make-believe bears found enough food to survive.

The teachers learned other surprising lessons as well. One teacher was asked to portray a mother bear with two cubs. She had to collect twice as much food as the other bears to keep herself and her brood alive. When she failed, she wanted to know what a real bear would do: Eat the food or feed the cubs. "Probably eat the food," she was told.

The teachers couldn't wait to get back to their classrooms to teach their students the game.

Solorzano said she was excited at the prospect of introducing her class to the ecological implications of the exercise, which could be incorporated into a physical-education lesson.

But she also liked the opportunity it presented for teaching mathematics: If a particular habitat produces X pounds of food and each bear needs Y pounds of food, how many bears can survive in the habitat? She noted that the new California guidelines for teaching mathematics encourage students to do mental math.

"This would fit in just fine," Solorzano said.

Project Wild, which was devised by a consortium of Western state wildlife agencies, education departments and resource management agencies, has been used in California classrooms since 1983.

According to Thomas Sachse, who manages the California Department of Education's mathematics and science division, Project Wild is the most popular of about 150 conservation and environmental education programs offered by the state.

About 10,000 California teachers have been trained to use Project Wild to date, the largest number in the country. The program is especially popular, he said, "because teachers find it so easy to use and students find it so interesting to work on."

The fat Project Wild handbook describes dozens of ecology-oriented games and demonstrations for use with students from kindergarten through senior high school. The handbook, which was given to workshop participants, also contains practical albeit offbeat tips for successfully observing wildlife. It points out, for instance, that you can enhance your sense of smell by moistening the undersurface of your nose and wetting your upper lip.

According to Jean Frederickson, a free-lance education consultant who led the Pomona workshop, a favorite activity among teachers is a game called "Oh Deer!"

Like many other Project Wild lessons, "Oh Deer!" illustrates how crucial habitat is to survival. An environmental version of musical chairs, the game requires players representing deer to tag players representing food, water and shelter.

Deer Game

When a deer player tags a player representing one of the life-sustaining components of habitat, the habitat player becomes a deer. But as the number of deer grow, there are fewer life-sustaining essentials to go around. Deer players who cannot find a habitat player to tag, "die" and in turn become part of the habitat.

"We were all racing for that one piece of habitat we wanted," one teacher said, a little shocked at how intensely she and her colleagues played the game. "We all competed. The ones with longer, stronger legs won. The weaker ones died off."

The teachers said they signed up for the workshop because they feel environmental education is important and too often neglected in the schools. They also noted that children love nature and are often seduced into learning because of their fascination with it.

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