Guest Post: Kristen Albright
I was selected to attend STEAM in the Park in Big Cypress National Preserve this July. It was an incredible experience that exceeded my expectations. I formed strong connections with my fellow ambassadors and campers, which have inspired me to overcome challenges. These “firefly” friendships are lifelong.
My time in Big Cypress National Preserve was truly life-changing for me. I had such a deep connection to the crystal clear water and towering cypress trees. I was able to come up close to alligators, immerse myself in the water of the swamp, hike through the prairie grass, and zoom through the swamp on a swamp buggy tour. I even found myself tracking a python through the swamp. I never thought I would be excited to see a 14 ft python, but after our long chase with the research team that hacked through the sawgrass with machetes, I was absolutely thrilled to finally find the Burmese python! I am much braver than I thought.
When the school year started, I knew I wanted to bring the Big Cypress National Preserve to my students in some way. I have found that when I am passionate about something, my students become excited too. The swamp was fascinating to them, and they made connections to movies like Shrek and the Princess and the Frog. Alligators and snakes always grab their attention!
One of my favorite resources to use in my classroom is the National Park challenges developed by Dacia and Expeditions and Education that can be found on the website. Many of these challenges align perfectly with my K-5 STEM curriculum. By incorporating science, technology, engineering, and math, I can cover the required standards. Students are eager to be good stewards of the environment, and adding real-world challenges in a park environment increases their investment. The clear instructions and videos provided by Dacia make it easy for teachers to develop lesson plans. I wanted to use Dacia’s challenge from Big Cypress about making pathways and trails through the swamp.
To enhance this project by providing additional resources beyond the National Park Challenge video, I attended a live stream with Ranger Lisa and Dacia that took me back to the swamp. My students were excited to see what I had experienced. I used my personal photographs, live stream videos, Clyde Butcher's art gallery photos, and the book Marvin and Huck in the National Parks Book 2 as resources. I also introduced them to the INaturalist app, which allows them to explore the flora and fauna of Big Cypress right from their computers. By having such a strong connection to that National Preserve, I was able to pull in resources that I had created and share anecdotes about what I had seen and heard. The swamp is so different from our rural Pennsylvania environment! There's something about the swamp that is just fascinating to students, and seeing photos of me immersed in the same water as they saw Dacia and Ranger Lisa in, it made Big Cypress all the more real to them.
Designing a swamp project for my students presented a challenge due to limited resources. I decided to use recycled paper bags and encouraged students to use any recyclable materials they could find in the STEM room. Through students' creativity and teamwork, popsicle sticks, foil, pieces of paper bag, and tape became boardwalks through the swamp, alligators, bald cypress trees, and of course, snakes! I added an extra empathy component to the project, asking students to make their swamp trail accessible for people with disabilities. Students had to consider the needs of their users and design pathways with wheelchair ramps, railings, and inclusive signage.
To outsiders walking by my STEM room, it may have looked like chaos with tape, paper bags, scissors, and markers everywhere. But to the students, those paper bags became the Big Cypress swamp. They developed empathy for the animals and plants and learned the importance of working cooperatively with others. This project has set the tone for the rest of the school year, emphasizing empathy, teamwork, and making the world a better place. That's what STEAM in the Park is all about!