MISSOULA – Wings Over Water, a joint program of the University of Montana and the Montana Natural History Center, recently was awarded an Underwriters Laboratories Innovation Education Award. Open to nonprofits from across the U.S. and Canada, the award comes with a $25,000 prize.
The Missoula program was one of six across the nation to earn these awards, which are presented with great fanfare by Underwriters Laboratories and the North American Association for Environmental Education. The ULIEA Award is very prestigious, meant to recognize the very best innovative E-STEM programs in North America. A video in which the honorees are surprised by their awards is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4jitzY57xY.
Wings Over Water, or WOW, is an “E-STEM” program about ospreys. (E-STEM stands for environmental science, technology and math.) The program provides a yearlong curriculum created for middle school and high school students.
“The program uses ospreys to provide teachers and students with a rich and integrative curriculum that blends biology, math, physics, technology, chemistry, environmental science, history and Native American perspectives in a really exciting way,” said UM Professor Erick Greene, who came up with the idea for WOW.
Greene and his research partners have conducted ecotoxicology research with ospreys for decades in conjunction with the clean-up of the Clark Fork River Superfund site. In the course of this research, they learned many things.
“First, people generally love ospreys,” Greene said. “Who can’t be impressed with a bird that can plummet out of the air at 80 mph to catch fish underwater? And secondly, we realized that about 90% of schools in Montana are within a couple of miles of an osprey nest. This got us thinking about how we might create a really meaningful integrative curriculum based around ospreys.”
The WOW program brings in some of the best middle school and high school teachers from all around the country for a weeklong workshop in Missoula. During the workshop, teachers are introduced to a wide variety of topics in the curriculum, mainly by letting them spend time with some of the top researchers in the world.
“The WOW program is sort of a bait and switch – it is certainly not a yearlong curriculum just about ospreys,” Greene said. “We use ospreys as a hook to engage students and teachers in a wide variety of topics. We have for broad modules in the program.”
For example, since ospreys obviously are great at flying, one theme is “how do things that are heavier than air stay up in the air?” This module introduces the math and physics of aerodynamics and flight. How do airplanes fly and why are they built the way they are? How do birds fly? How are different shapes of wings suited for different types of flight? For this module, teachers visit Northstar Jet at the Missoula airport, see planes up close and personal, and also visit the world-class Bird Flight Lab at UM’s Field Research Station.
“Teachers leave with a better understanding of these topics, and they can get their students to build their own research wind tunnels out of cardboard boxes, toilet paper tubes, a $20 fan, and, of course, duct tape,” Greene said.
The intensive WOW workshop helps turn middle and high school students into researchers through their studies. The curriculum is appropriate for grades five and up.
“Most kids are very curious and inquisitive, and they are natural scientists,” Greene said. “Research shows, however, that many students, especially girls, stop being interested in science about fifth grade. So we focused our efforts on these vulnerable grades where we lose a lot of students. We hope to keep students interested by providing material that connects them to things that are right out their front door, giving them the tools to grow as scientists. We also have a focus on rural and tribal students.”
He said WOW is a truly collaborative endeavor. It includes experts from Raptor View Research Institute, UM’s spectrUM program, the National Wildlife Federation, Five Valleys Audubon, the Montana Space Grant Consortium and NASA, Lockheed Martin Aerospace, Northstar Jet, the UM Bird Flight Lab and many others.
The $25,000 award will be used to develop and improve WOW. Greene and Dr. Jenélle Dowling, program manager of WOW with the Montana Natural History Center, also recently met with the other 2019 winners from across North America to discuss environmental STEM education, as well as social impact projects that engage youth, inspire leadership and drive sustainable change.