Third-grader Oscar Martinez had never seen a frog until one hopped outside his bedroom windowsill one rainy night last year.
“It was making so much noise I couldn’t fall asleep. I said to my brother, what is that?” said Oscar, a student at Stoneman Elementary in Pittsburg in Contra Costa County.
He was immediately intrigued. Now, thanks to curriculum provided by a nonprofit called Save the Frogs, Oscar is an emerging expert on all things slimy and green. He and his classmates showed off their knowledge at a Frog Fair on a recent Friday, displaying almost 100 three-paneled posters they had created about different frog species, their habitats and threats to survival. There was even a live frog in attendance
: an African clawed frog named Sunshine that a teacher brought in.
Stoneman Elementary is one of numerous schools throughout California that are using curriculum provided by science education nonprofits to teach the state’s new Next Generation Science Standards. The lessons provided by Save the Frogs included reading, writing and public speaking, as well as biology, ecology and geography.
“The students have absolutely loved this project,” said Stoneman 3rd-grade teacher Angela Labat. “But the biggest thing is that they’re learning how to research, how to ask questions, how to find the answers, how to write it all down into paragraphs. These are tools they can use to study anything.”
Science lessons provided by nonprofits are an attractive option for some teachers, especially as schools roll out the new science standards, said Lisa Hegdahl, president of the California Science Teachers Association and an 8th-grade science teacher in Galt in rural Sacramento County.
The state has not yet adopted textbooks and other instructional materials for the new science standards, so teachers trying to teach the standards “are pretty much on their own,” she said. They often rely on material provided by nonprofits, and some of it, such as the Frog Fair, has been very popular with students.
“There is nothing right now, so we’re all looking for these gold mines of information we can use in the classroom,” Hegdahl said.
Galt Unified, where Hegdahl teaches, is one of eight districts selected as “early adopters” of the new standards. Hegdahl has used free curriculum material from science education nonprofits such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, NASA, the Exploratorium and other sources, and found it to be “extremely useful,” not just for students but for her.
The California Academy of Sciences is one of the state’s largest providers of free online science lessons. The San Francisco science museum provides dozens of K-12 lesson plans, covering everything from phases of the moon to earthquakes to “the secret lives of sharks.” Field trips, teacher training workshops, online classes, videos, games and “citizen science” toolkits are also among the offerings.
At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, more than 1,500 teachers a year take part in the teacher training programs, and many more use the free online lesson plans. The lessons are tailored to the new science standards and focus on marine biology, oceanography and conservation.
Helping teachers is a key part of the Aquarium’s mission, said Mary Whaley, the Aquarium’s teacher programs manager.
“We believe that teachers should have free access to exemplary curriculum and professional development,” she said. “(Our hope is to) rekindle their enthusiasm for learning and teaching and in turn, motivate their students.”
California’s new science standards focus on hands-on projects, rather than rote learning, and core concepts taught through several scientific fields at once, such as how “cause and effect,” applies to physical science, life science, engineering, and earth and space science.
“With NGSS, we’re sometimes teaching about subjects where our content knowledge is not strong because we haven’t taught it before,” Hegdahl said. “That’s where outside sources can give context and make for a much richer experience.”
The potential pitfall, she said, is that teachers might not have time to vet the sources, or “explore all the cool stuff out there. There’s a lot.”
Save the Frogs, based in Laguna Beach, provides curriculum free online, and an ecologist from the group visits schools to talk to students about frog habitat and how students can help protect amphibians, many species of which are threatened with extinction.
Students and teachers at Stoneman Elementary said the frog project was a fun and engaging way to learn about habitats, biology and other topics. Every 3rd-grader participated, studying frogs for at least a few hours a week from January through May.
Save the Frogs ecologists have worked with dozens of schools throughout California, helping students raise tadpoles and restore frog habitats, and generally teaching kids about the wonders of frogs and their role in the ecosystem.
Frogs need all the help they can get, Save the Frogs ecologist Michael Starkey said. One-third of the world’s 6,500 frog species are threatened with extinction, he said, due to pollution, climate change, habitat loss and a deadly fungus called chytrid. Because of this, frogs are the most threatened vertebrate on the planet, he said.
In fact, many of the teachers at Stoneman Elementary who grew up around Pittsburg remember frogs being a regular part of the east Contra Costa County landscape, croaking in the spring and hopping across creeks, lawns and sidewalks after a rain. But some of the students participating in the school’s Save the Frogs program had never seen a live frog outside a terrarium.
Third-grader Jocelyn Ponce said she’s never seen a frog in the wild, but hopes to someday.
“Frogs are good for the world because they eat mosquitos. My friend is allergic to mosquitos,” she said. “Frogs are good for the ecosystem and we should save them.”
Stoneman principal Terry Dunn said the success of the Frog Fair, now in its fourth year, has given him hope.
“To see the joy this has brought, and to see the kids so engaged, has been inspirational,” he said as he toured the fair and admired students’ work. “If we can teach them to care about animals they’ll care about the planet, and hopefully think about how fragile life is and how important it is we try to protect it.”