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BKW students take science beyond the textbook and out of the classroom

Armed with dip nets, rubber boots and clipboards, a parade of fourth grade students marched from the lakeside Eldridge Research Center of the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve and splashed shin-deep into a nearby stream. The students, all from Agnes Zellin’s class at Berne-Knox-Westerlo Elementary School, had been studying the natural world with the help of a Science and Technology for Children (STC) Ecosystems Kit provided through Capital Region BOCES STEM & 21st-Century Skills Instructional Materials Service.

The above video details the class trip to the Huyck Preserve and how the BKW students used the intructional kits as part of their lessons. Having trouble viewing the video? Watch it here.

On May 15, they ventured to the Huyck Preserve in Rensselaerville to bring their learning to life.

On the hunt for crayfish, the students lifted rocks from the streambed and waited for the water to clear. Eager shrieks punctuated the windy day as the first crustaceans were spotted and scooped from stream to net to bucket. The budding scientists identified each specimen as one of three species of crayfish — two native and one invasive, marked each of the crayfish, and recorded the data. By the end of their two-hour collection, they had caught and identified hundreds.

Back in their classroom, the windows are lined with dozens of “ecocolumns,” stacked soda-bottle terrariums and aquariums that are host to fish, elodea, duckweed, algae, grass and crickets. Their science notebooks are full of observations about growth, measurements, food chains, seepage and the simulated effects of pollutants on their ecocolumns. By creating and connecting the two habitats in the STC kit, the students observed the interplay between the environments and their organisms — and the potential human impact on those model ecosystems.

The ecosystems unit is one of many Science and Technology for Children kits available through Capital Region BOCES. The STC kits are National Science Foundation-developed, inquiry-based programs, and include all the materials and supports needed for teachers to enrich their science curriculum with hands-on learning. The kits, which range in topic from weather and electricity to the life cycle of butterflies, are available in the physical and life sciences for grades K-8.

Zellin helped purchase and pilot a few of the kits for different grade levels at BKW. When Zellin began at the district, she was asked to represent BKW in the New York ECLIPSE initiative (Enhancing Collaborative Leadership for Improved Performance in Science Education), which aimed to create systemic change in science education and build leadership teams within local school districts.

Tasked with assessing science resources at BKW, Zellin realized the district needed support to grow their lean resources in a meaningful way. “I don’t have a background in science,” said Zellin, “so I knew I needed resources in my classroom. Something that was tried and true. I really liked the way that the STC kits supported hands-on, inquiry-based learning.”

But, looking out her window at the rich ecosystem right outside BKW, Zellin became determined to take her science curriculum not only beyond the textbook, but beyond the classroom. She connected with the education director at the Huyck preserve and developed a program that would extend the concepts students were learning with the STC kits to a field research experience at the Huyck.

With the help of local Countryside Mart/Mobil owner David Vincent, Zellin applied for a grant from the ExxonMobil Education Alliance program. After winning the $700 grant, she successfully sought additional support from the Bender Scientific Fund of the Community Foundation of the Greater Capital Region. With that funding, BKW began their educational relationship with the Huyck Preserve.

Now in their third year, BKW’s continued trips to the Huyck Preserve are made possible by the Huyck Preserve's 2012 Conservation Catalyst Grant "Engaging Local School Districts as Partners" project, with funding from the New York Environmental Protection Fund and The New York State Conservation Partnership Program, administered by the Land Trust Alliance in coordination with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and ongoing support from the BKW Parent Teacher Association.

“In fourth grade we teach a lot about the environment, the earth, the water cycle. I didn’t want to just be teaching out of a textbook while there was an incredible watershed environment outside our door,” said Zellin. “Now you have a teacher and a scientist working together. And that, to me, is my dream.”

For more information on STC kits and staff workshops to support the units available through Capital Region BOCES, contact STEM & 21st Century Skills managing program coordinator Laura Lehtonen at 464-3999 or

This story was produced in cooperation with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service.