Nature in the City

Baltimore Woods brings science alive for elementary students

This school year, the environmental education organization Baltimore Woods Nature Center will expand its programs to every South Side elementary school. The Dr. King Elementary School and McKinley-Brighton Elementary are among the eight new schools to host the program, called Nature in the City, which takes students out of the classroom and shows them the nature in and around their communities.

While the non-profit organization has previously worked with 11 Syracuse elementary schools, including the J.T. Roberts PreK-8 School, this will be the first year the program will help teach students in every elementary school in the Syracuse City School District.

“The program has been great for some time,” said Michael Henesey, communications coordinator for the school district. “To offer it to all students is remarkable. There are some wonderful green spaces in the city of Syracuse. It’s like an outdoor science lab.”

Baltimore Woods began working with the city school district in 2002, said Baltimore Woods marketer Stacy Drake. Over the years, the Marcellus-based organization has expanded its reach, making connections with more and more students throughout the city.
Keil White, vice principal at the Roberts School at 715 Glenwood Ave., said the Baltimore Woods educators make lasting connections with the school districts’ students and teachers alike.

“Over the years they’ve developed very good relationships with teachers and students,” White said. Each grade level has a teacher representative who coordinates Baltimore Woods’ visits for their classes. “The kids get to know the instructors,” White said. “It’s real good support.”

Baltimore Woods education manager Katie Mulverhill has had a hand in all of that. Mulverhill is one of three environmental educators who goes into the schools’ classrooms, teaches lessons, and leads students on nature walks in areas around their schools and in their community.

Part of what makes Nature in the City effective is that students don’t have to leave the city to learn the lessons, Drake said, explaining this not only cuts down on the schools’ transportation expenses and time, but also reduces the program’s carbon footprint.

The nature walks typically take place in a park close to the school. A Google Maps search shows Libba Cotton Grove is a seven-minute walk from Dr. King Elementary, located at 416 E. Raynor Ave. But the park is a 27-minute walk down Salina Street from
McKinley-Brighton Elementary, located at 141 W. Newell St., with no closer option.

“If a school isn’t by a park, that’s not going to lessen the experience,” Mulverhill said. “The Nature in the City program is the same in all schools.”

One of the goals of the organization is to promote environmental education in a way that students can practice and talk about on their own. “You don’t have to be at Baltimore Woods to talk about it,” she said.

Mulverhill is a graduate of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and she has a science background, like much of the organization staff. One educator is a New York State certified teacher. The educators share a passion and love for working with youth, she said, and helping them to learn in and out of the classroom.

“We really look at the science curriculum for the city school district. We made some strong connections, and retired some programs that didn’t have as close connections,” Mulverhill said.

In kindergarten and first grade, the program introduces environmental science and biology — the idea of going out into the world to explore. In second grade through sixth grade, the focus is on a specific topic that coincides closely with the subject material the students learn in class that year.

One year, in a fourth-grade class studying the relationships between predators and their prey, Mulverhill brought in some animal skulls for the students to examine and inspect. She recalls that one student excitedly yelled out, “This is like real science!”
Mulverhill always remembered that student on her later visits to the school.

“We see the kids 18 times,” Mulverhill said. “When we walk in the door, they recognize us. They tell us about a bird they saw. It really is bringing science alive.”