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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Listener Successes

Air Date: Week of

Sixth-grade science teacher Dan Shaw took his students into a burned down forest in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and turned it into a living science laboratory for his class. Steve Curwood asks him more about it.


CURWOOD: On a scorchingly hot July day in 1994, a fire torched 4 acres of forest behind the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Nearly all of the trees were burned; a handful of birds and animals also perished. The city was preparing to bulldoze the ugly and dangerous area when they ran into a group of sixth graders and their science teacher. Dan Shaw and his students had turned the blackened acres into a laboratory. Mr. Shaw joins us now on the line from the Bosque Preparatory School in Albuquerque. Mr. Shaw, what made you think of turning this disaster into a laboratory?

SHAW: Part of the thing that I've been interested in doing is finding ways to engage my students in real scientific investigations. And the Bosque is a forest in Albuquerque that is changing dramatically. There is a lot of interest on both political and scientific levels as to what to do with that.

CURWOOD: What's it like to go out in the field with these kids?

SHAW: It's a lot of fun, more than anything else. It's the opportunity to watch kids build direct and visceral connections with their environment. They come to know a place by getting their hands dirty. That beats working any day.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) What kind of experiments do they do?

SHAW: They've been setting up small traps to capture insects and other arthropods. They looked at how there is life both within and outside of the fire area. They also looked at the role that fire played with the dominant tree species, the cottonwood.

CURWOOD: How well are your kids doing as scientists?

SHAW: It's a mixed bag. Some days we have some pretty good data that we generate and other days we have to go back and do it again. It's a learning process for all of us, and it's an opportunity for kids to realize that they have to be responsible for the data they collect, because it matters to someone just besides themselves on their own grade at the end of the semester. It matters to the wider community of scientists which they've joined.

CURWOOD: I was going to ask, who else is using their data?

SHAW: Several different government agencies. The City of Albuquerque that manages that piece of property; a conservancy district, which is a water management district; as well as the University of New Mexico.

CURWOOD: So sixth graders can do quite a lot, huh?

SHAW: You'd be surprised.

CURWOOD: What do the kids get out of this, do you think?

SHAW: One thing, without a doubt, is the understanding of what science is really about. No matter what you have to do with science, you have to be accurate, whether that's being in a laboratory with white lab coats or out in the field crawling through the bushes and underneath mosquitoes and whatever else is out there. They come to understand that science is an extended process; it's not just reading through a textbook and having a final answer. It's using resources like textbooks to get information, but then to go and apply those in the field.

CURWOOD: Mr. Shaw, thank you very much for talking with us.

SHAW: Sure.

CURWOOD: Dan Shaw is a science teacher at the Bosque Preparatory School at Albuquerque, New Mexico.



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