September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Looking for Nature in All Kinds of Places

Posted: Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

by Annette Huddle

The San Francisco Botanical Garden is an unnatural place.

Now there’s a provocative statement – especially since we pride ourselves on the nature education programs we provide for urban children, reaching about 12,000 children and their teachers and parents each year! But in a sense, the statement is true. The 55 acres that comprise the botanical garden include about a dozen manmade water features, miles of paved roads and paths, green lawns, and thousands of exotic plants from around the world. Many of these need supplemental watering or occasional frost protection to survive. The sand dunes and associated ecologies of 150 years ago are gone, destroyed in the interest of the humans who built the city of San Francisco. Quite unnatural!

Teachers explore the diversity of life inside a hula-hoop on the garden lawn

Teachers explore the diversity of life inside a hula-hoop on the garden lawn

Except, of course, that it’s not. For one thing, human beings are a part of the natural world, and the actions we take that alter it are a part of that world too. That’s a key message that children, and adults too, need to learn. If we insist on separating ourselves from “nature”, we will miss the fact that we are truly linked to and dependent on the systems and organisms that surround us.

But another important point is that natural processes are at work everywhere on our planet, with living organisms and abiotic features linked through a rich variety of interactions, creating elaborate interconnected systems. These interactions and systems exist at one scale or another in even the most “unnatural” environments. In the San Francisco Botanical Garden, a wide variety of living things have found ways to meet their needs. While the players may be different than in a less human-altered area, the processes are the same – living things develop, grow and change while obtaining food and water, protecting themselves, and trying to reproduce, either limited or enhanced by the geology, climate and weather and the processes and cycles associated with them.

 A huge non-native snapping turtle basks in the pond near giant South American gunnera leaves, both dramatic sights for visitors.

A huge non-native snapping turtle basks in the pond near giant South American gunnera leaves, both dramatic sights for visitors.

In guided walks at the SFBG, students from kindergarten through 5th grade learn about various aspects of the natural world, including our place in it. The garden teaches us lessons both in spite of and because of its unusual diversity of plants. A five year old does not care, or particularly need to know, that a plant she is examining is an exotic monkey hand tree from Mexico, but she does need to learn that this plant, like any other plant, has specific parts that do certain jobs for the plant. A second-grader on a “Web of Life” walk can learn about food chains even if the native red tail hawk is eating a non-native squirrel which fattened up on exotic Chinese magnolia buds and human-supplied and officially forbidden peanuts. A fourth grader learning about traditional Ohlone uses of plants in our native garden can contemplate other ways humans use plants while passing the weaver’s bamboo from China or the fiber banana from Japan.

In our Children’s Garden, young people are immersed in experiencing the natural world, learning to recognize its cycles and processes, and the things we humans can, and cannot, do to alter or control these. We can add compost to build the soil on the sand dune on which our garden grows, helping retain water for our plants, but we can’t make it rain. We can plant pumpkin seeds in June, but are at the mercy of the fog that covers our San Francisco garden in July and August, allowing mildew to cover the stunted leaves. We can plant in containers to dissuade hungry gophers, but since they are even hungrier than we are, we never entirely outwit them!

A native heron hunts for fish in a man-made pond in the San Francisco Botanical Garden

A native heron hunts for fish in a man-made pond in the San Francisco Botanical Garden

It’s clear that a landscape can be quite altered by human activity and still support a rich web of life. Perhaps visiting a botanical garden is not the same as visiting an area of undeveloped wilderness, but there is still a lot to explore, discover, and learn. By the same token, a neighborhood park, a school yard, a vacant lot, even a cemetery can provide an opportunity to observe natural processes and cycles at work. Living organisms evolve and adapt to all kinds of habitats, even those that may seem barren at first glance. We humans need to learn to recognize nature in all its forms, whether in the densest urban center or the most pristine landscape, to truly understand that we too are part of it all.

Annette Huddle is Director of the Youth Education Program at the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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  1. […] else you might find interesting is this article I just wrote for the California Science Teachers Association called “Finding Nature in All […]

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State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.