In 1971 when the Belwin Outdoor Laboratory first started, guides and volunteers would show students around the trails. The technique used then was called ‘free interpretation,’ and whatever the group encountered was talked about with the students. Since that simple beginning, the techniques and curricula at the Valley Branch Environmental Learning Center have evolved considerably.
During the mid-1970s the teaching staff began to compile a simple book of activities. Although they were very minimal, these activities were among the first attempts that we made to set down a real curriculum at Belwin. The materials we prepared included animal picture cards, a track book or tape recorder with chickadee song. These activities could be done alone or in sequence giving us the flexibility to work with students at different age levels and with differing interests.
In the 1980s our program was reaching maturity and we developed some full-day activities to really take advantage of a student’s time at Belwin. The activities included orienteering, pond sampling, animal tracking and photography. This was an exciting time in environmental education and many of the curricula that we developed during this period were used by educators elsewhere and are still used in one way or another today.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been changes over the years. For example, the original photography unit used 35 mm cameras, black and white film and taught students basic development skills. In fact, film development was really the focus of the unit until the film and chemicals became hard to find in the 1990s. With help from the Friends of Belwin, we converted to digital cameras allowing the emphasis to change to a greater focus on nature and composition.
In our photography unit today, the students are challenged to view the subject with an artistic eye, and take beautiful pictures of nature. We upload these photographs to our web site (http://valleybranch.spps.org/) for the kids to share with their families when they get home. This lesson meets a visual art standard and helps students to look at the world around them in a different way.
Like the photography unit, all of the lessons at Valley Branch have changed over the years to meet new curricular needs, our growing capabilities and the changing skills of our students. Today, all of our lessons fit current state science standards, and some—like the photography unit—use interdisciplinary skills to teach kids about the natural world.
Visit the Student Gallery on the Valley Branch Environmental Learning Center's website, to see more photos taken by students as part of the photography program at the Belwin Conservancy.