Cross Country Connections: Professional Development for Omaha, Nebraska Public Schools

The Ecology School was really an eye-opening experience. I really appreciated the “I notice... it reminds me of... I wonder... “ and question making process to get students used to talking and making connections with nature and prior knowledge. I look forward to using it when students look at things in our matter and ecosystems units.
— Sarah Nelson Wiese, Bryan Middle School, 8th grade Science Teacher, Omaha Public Schools

The Ecology School’s teaching methodology reaches outside the walls of a school building and beyond the scope of traditional classroom learning. Students and teachers who experience our science-based explorations know, first-hand, the lasting impact that our lessons have on them. That’s why our Program and Educational Team are often called upon to present at conferences, participate in research groups, and host workshops around the country. (As this article is being written, Alex and Drew are in Colorado as part of Residential Environmental Education Partnership.) It’s a part of The Ecology School that often flies under the radar, but is truly a point of pride for our organization. We are leaders in the field of experiential education and, as we move to River Bend Farm, we’ll be creating even more impact through on-site professional development opportunities for educators all over the world.

The group of 30 public school teachers from Omaha, Nebraska were eager to dive into hands-on learning that they could bring with them back to their classrooms. The Omaha Public School district consists of 62 elementary schools, 12 middle schools, seven high schools, one virtual school, and 13 alternative programs. Enrollment is more than 52,000 students.

Their trip to Maine was the culmination of a three-year, grant-funded program that has offered the school system’s teachers and staff the opportunity to travel throughout the United States to learn about different teaching methodologies and explore a variety of geographical regions. While Nebraska is more green and wet than most of us imagine, the rocky coast of Maine certainly gave them a very different landscape to interact with! While in Maine, the group visited Hurricane Island Center (Rockalnd) and the Maine Botanical Gardens (Boothbay). They also participated in sea kayaking, whale watching, and sea scallop research.

The Ecology School was the last stop on their Maine adventure. Meg packed in a day full of exploring our state’s diversity of ecology, first making a trip to the ocean and then back to River Bend Farm. The group had seen tide pools along their Maine route, but this was the first opportunity to actually interact with the sea creatures that call these incredible ecosystems home. While digging around the seaweed, participants were guided to think about themselves as learners, and to think about how outdoor explorations—in any environment—can become resources for their teaching tool belt. Back at the farm, Meg led the group down to the river to take part in an empathy building field activity, creating connections to natural objects and, consequently, the world around them. “By spending a few minutes thinking, observing, and wondering about the pinecone you’re holding or the twig you just picked up off the forest floor, we begin to weave a story of how this natural object is a connected to us, to our lives. It’s a really powerful moment for not only students, but teachers as well,” said Meg.

Before leaving with The ABC’s of Ecology (The Ecology School’s published curriculum guide) in hand, the group excitedly expressed interest in bringing back a high school research team, a self-selected group of science-curious students, to River Bend Farm. “How soon can we come back and bring our students?”

We are grateful to our new friends at Omaha Public Schools and are excited to host them when River Bend Farm opens in Fall 2020!

The Ecology School provided outstanding professional learning to support our K-12 educators who teach far from an ocean! Meg was enthusiastic, intentional and purposeful in guiding our educators through activities and experiences in the southern coastal Maine ecosystems as we explored tidal pools, dunes and woodlands. While the activities we did could stand on their own, it was how the activities flowed together with community building, communication, and curiosity that allowed us to experience the power of the ABC’s of ecology.
— Dan Sitzman, Science Instructional Coach, Omaha Public Schools


Teachers from Omaha Public Schools use natural objects to unlock their curiosities along the Maine Coast and the banks of the Saco River at River Bend Farm.

One of the most powerful moments during our visit with the Ecology School occurred when we were asked to search around the forest for one item (i.e. a branch, a pine cone, a rock) and think about the emotions/memories that object brought to the surface. I picked up a fallen leaf and immediately pondered the cycle of life and how, even in its decaying state, the leaf was just as important as the living tree it fell from. Furthermore, I was led to reflect on the intricacies and fragile nature of ecosystems. From this experience, I learned more about my colleagues and was able to reflect about my purpose as an educator. Teaching science is not strictly based on the content of a textbook or “teaching to the test”, but rather an opportunity to highlight the wealth of personal experiences my students already have as a means to directly engage them with the environment. Ultimately, these interactions can lead to students making stronger connections from the classroom to the outside world.
— Royonna L. Bristol, Science Teacher, Omaha Bryan High School, Omaha Public Schools