A faculty member at Browning since 2012, Emilie Wolf has taught science in all three divisions. She earned a DCS (associate degree) in scientific research, a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology, and is scheduled to complete her master’s in biology in May 2019. Ms. Wolf is a proud Green Team advisor, an independent school representative for Black Rock Forest Consortium, and a curriculum developer and educator for the American Museum of Natural History.
The best part about being a student is all that you get to discover for the first time: creeping caterpillars that turn into fluttering butterflies, plants that eat insects, and robots that reach Mars! We live in a really amazing world and the natural state of children is to appreciate all this wonderment. Wonder is found through exposure to a multitude of things, from works of art to technology. The challenge for teachers is to find the balance between fostering wonderment while covering all the content we expect students to learn in a year. This balance can be achieved by supplementing the curriculum with extracurricular activities. The most important aspect of my teaching practice has been to create opportunities for students to develop a genuine connection to nature.
Besides my personal proclivity for the outdoors, the empirical evidence on the importance of connecting with the natural world is well supported and slowly permeating the zeitgeist. (I suggest you look up “forest bathing,” the most recent rebranding of a walk in the woods.) Sparing a literature review, the New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation lists the following benefits of interacting with nature: reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, improves mood, increases one’s ability to focus, accelerates recovery from surgery or illness, increases energy level, and improves sleep. If we’re on the same wavelength and you haven’t already stopped reading to go explore the outdoors, you might be thinking, This is all well and good, but how do we get Browning kids into nature during the school day, and what do we have them do outdoors?
For daily and weekly exposure, the most obvious answer comes in the form of our proximity to Central Park, an outdoor space minutes from the classroom that offers a diverse, although curated, experience of nature. There are over 200 species of birds inhabiting the Park, along with thousands of plants and invertebrates, not to mention the zoo, which can transport us to completely different ecosystems. The Park allows students to connect their science lab experiments to the real world; one might say that Central Park is our own “Magic School Bus.”
All this diversity, however, can easily blend into the background. One of my favorite quotes hails from the glory days of natural historians when scholars dedicated their lives to observing and describing the world around them. In 1854 English biologist Thomas Huxley wrote: “[to] a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall.” I first heard this quote over a decade ago and have since dedicated myself to revealing these unseen works of art, since no one will want to protect what they can’t even see. I have had the pleasure of teaching science to various audiences for over 15 years; however, the significance of Huxley’s words have never resonated as strongly than on Biodiversity Day two or three years ago. I was busy running around and checking up on the many different groups exploring Central Park when a Lower School student came up to me and said: “Ms. Wolf, did you know there were different types of grass?” The student had just spent an hour with one of our guest naturalists, Dr. Daniel Atha, from the Botanical Gardens of New York, and his world had gotten richer. I could see it in his eyes. These are the moments I live and work for: when students realize just how big, amazing and interconnected our world is and are just happy to be a part of it.
We started celebrating Biodiversity Day five years ago when the Green Team was looking for a way to engage our community and make a difference. The idea hatched after meeting a Browning alumnus who is one of the scientists credited with coining the term, “biodiversity.” While Dr. Thomas Lovejoy may not be a household name, he is a superstar in the field of biology, and we have been fortunate to have Dr. Lovejoy’s support. His association with this event has attracted amazing scientists who are excited to participate as guest naturalists and share their knowledge with our community. As a school, we have identified over 180 different species in Central Park. This day couldn’t happen without the engagement of the entire Browning faculty and staff; I recognize and am grateful for the incredibly dedicated people I work with.
Since 1989 Browning has also enjoyed a direct connection to the wilderness through Black Rock Forest Consortium. Our lasting partnership with the forest is a testament to our institutional commitment to connecting students to nature. Opportunities for exploration and interdisciplinary connections are only limited by the imagination of the field trip organizers. Central Park is a marvelous, manicured experience, while Black Rock Forest allows students to really dive into nature – sometimes literally! I am so excited to be working with the forest to develop new field trips, catered to a student’s level and focused on long-term monitoring in the forest. The students’ activities in the forest will build upon themselves throughout the years, giving each Browning boy a better understanding of our forest. We are investigating mammal trapping and telemetry, deer and newt demographic studies, installing dendrometers in the forest to monitor tree growth, and camera traps to capture the most elusive inhabitants of the forest. Some of these projects will even allow us to bring the forest into the classroom.
Whether it be through the organisms in the science labs, impromptu visits to the Park, hikes in our forest or adventures abroad, I will always be looking for new and different ways for students to develop a genuine and long-lasting relationship with nature.
I’ll see you out there!