November 10, 2008
Environment as classroom
BOCES class prepares students for work in natural sciences
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Seniors from BOCES’s New Vision course, from left, Tyler Knapp, Allan Smith and Justanna Gray, put their study of environmental science into practice Friday by planting a red maple tree at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center.
A red maple sapling was not growing well and was too close to a power line at Lime Hollow Nature Center in Cortlandville, so several high school seniors prepared a new spot for it.
The crunching sound of their shovels hitting the marshy soil rang out, getting louder when one of them found a large pick ax. The seniors, all members of the New Vision Environmental Science course, dug a pit while they needled each other about muscle power, planning competence and a dozen other issues.
A volunteer brought the tree in the bucket of a digging machine. Several students rolled a wheelbarrow full of mulch to the site and began to shovel it around the tree.
It was just another morning for Tim Sandstrom’s course, taught through Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES and based both at the center and down the road at Tunison Aquatic Labs.
The class of 18 seniors was supposed to trap a beaver that has been damming a creek and flooding the Tunison main building, where they meet every morning at 7:30. But Lime Hollow staff called for help with a large landscaping project, so at about 8:30, the class gathered there.
In its 15th year, the yearlong class immerses students in environmental work, a career path that most of them plan to pursue in college. The students are from all Cortland County schools plus Dryden, Tully and DeRuyter.
The class encompasses English, government and economics, science and physical education credits. It meets from 7:30 a.m. until 11 a.m., when students go to their schools for other courses.
Sandstrom said he recruits the students every spring by talking to 11th-graders at area schools, then giving them a tour. They write an essay, obtain recommendations from a teacher and a guidance counselor, and go through an interview with him.
Besides lectures at the lab, where they meet in a room back by tanks of fish eggs, the students spend much of their time in the field. They each do five research projects and present them in a formal symposium setting, using PowerPoint.
The students visit colleges with environmental science specialties. They also spend two weekends in the Adirondacks. At SUNY Cortland’s Racquette Lake recreation facility in January, they experience heat and cold by stepping from a sauna into sub-zero temperatures, for what Sandstrom calls a spiritual experience. In May, they climb Mount Colden, an Adirondack mountain that is 4,560 feet tall.
“They do go overnight, their parents allow it, so there has to be trust,” Sandstrom said. “It’s that bridge between high school and college, it gives them a chance to test the waters. This is a good group, they get along as if they’ve known each other since kindergarten.”
The students say they wanted to take New Vision because they were tired of sitting in classrooms.
“I want to be an earth science teacher,” said Rocco Longo of Tully, as he dug a pit for another tree with Matt Stevens of DeRuyter and Ross Pouliot of Homer. “I just recently made up my mind on that.”
Longo said he was frustrated by the housing developments appearing in Tully and the cultural clashes that come with them, as urban and suburban people object to country ways — like farmers’ use of manure on crops.
“People don’t know where food comes from,” he said.
Stevens said his family lives on a stone-covered road in Cuyler, surrounded by forest. He wants a career where he works outdoors.
Nearby, Cortland student Corby Reynolds and Marathon students Cinnamon Myers and Brooke Winter-Potter pulled rocks from their own pit.
“I wanted to try something different from the everyday high school experience,” Myers said of her decision to join New Vision. Winter-Potter agreed. Reynolds said the course sounded like an opportunity to try new things.
Most of the students said they want to study at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, or at a community college first. Reynolds plans to study technology education. McGraw’s Alan Smith, one of the class’s leaders, plans to enter the Marines.
Sandstrom said the English part of the curriculum is covered by students’ journals, papers they write about science articles and a novel with spiritual and natural themes.
This year’s novel is Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi,” about a boy trapped in a raft on the Pacific Ocean with a tiger.
Longo said Sandstrom’s teaching method causes students to learn traditional material in unexpected ways.
“He does a good job of integrating government and English into class, so you don’t really know you’re doing it,” he said.
“You can’t tell you’re learning, then later you realize you have,” Pouliot said.
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