Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Helping teachers navigate Louisiana’s coastal wetlands

Louisiana science teachers kayaking to Fort Proctor.

Louisiana science teachers kayaking to Fort Proctor as part of a place-based professional development. Photo by Blake Touchet.

Fort Proctor was built in 1856, about 70 kilometers southeast of New Orleans. At the time of its construction, it sat about 500 meters inland, next to a railroad line. Intended to protect water routes to New Orleans, it was never garrisoned because the progress of modern warfare made the fortress obsolete even as it was completed. Though it has fallen into disrepair, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is also now completely surrounded by water.

A combination of erosion, subsidence, riverine mismanagement, hurricanes, and sea level rise means that the only way to visit Fort Proctor is by boat. During a recent summer morning, NCSE’s Blake Touchet and 20 intrepid elementary, middle, and high school science teachers, along with researchers on a Louisiana Sea Grant-led project, paddled kayaks out to the fort as part of a professional development experience. The trip allowed the teachers, who came from across the state, to see firsthand the coastal changes affecting Louisiana.

“People used to walk to this place where they’re now kayaking,” explains Dani Diiullo, Director of Education and Engagement for Louisiana Sea Grant and the principal investigator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant that is funding the teachers’ professional development experience, called B-WET (Bay Watershed Education and Training). “You’re like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ It wasn’t an easy kayak trip, either, because it was kind of windy that day, and they’re kayaking this long distance.”

In addition to the trip to Fort Proctor, the teachers took part in other place-based learning experiences during the summer of 2022, with excursions to a wetland that the state of Louisiana is restoring, a coastal forest to take core samples from trees, and the Bonnet Carré spillway, a critical flood control on the lower Mississippi.

Aimee Hollander, co-principal investigator on the B-WET grant and director of Nicholls State University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, says that a majority of science taught in Louisiana public schools is prescribed. As a result, science teachers don’t have the opportunity to create lessons and activities that focus on aspects of the world with which their students are familiar. “With the grant,” she continues, “we can bring certain scientific phenomena into the classroom that these students see every single day or read about in their local newspapers — land laws, diversions, climate change, sea level rise, extreme weather. These are things students know about firsthand but are not necessarily taught in our prescribed curriculum.”

The 20 participating teachers have signed on for two years as part of the grant. In summer 2022, they met for one week to engage with researchers in the field at places like Fort Proctor and then in a seminar room to develop ideas for how they would incorporate their experiences in their own classrooms. Along with the excursions, the teachers had the opportunity to interact with subject-area experts who answered questions, demonstrated research techniques, and in the case of Touchet, provided teaching resources.

Touchet introduced the teachers to NCSE’s climate change lesson sets, in particular a hindcasting interactive that helps students better understand climate modeling, a tree core activity, and a hurricane simulation. Afterward, Touchet helped them align the phenomena they chose to focus on based on their field experiences with their specific grade-level standards, and also brainstormed activities with them.

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... the beneficiaries of the effort put in by B-WET teachers — whether physical, as in kayaking to Fort Proctor, or mental, as in crafting engaging, hands-on lessons — are Louisiana’s students.

“The teachers particularly appreciated the misconception-based approach in NCSE’s activities that addresses the common misconceptions that students have surrounding these issues,” Touchet recalls. During the 2022–2023 school year, Touchet will continue working with the B-WET teachers to guide them as they create climate lessons.

Hollander points out that the teachers engaged not only with “phenomenal subject-matter experts” like Touchet and scientists from Nicholls State, Louisiana State University, and the University of New Orleans but also, perhaps just as importantly, with local community members. “They got to interact with people who have been living in these parts of Louisiana for much of their lives and who told personal stories of their experiences living through major storms, seeing the changes in wetlands, seeing the changes in the fish populations. That really humanizes this work and helps the teachers when they’re developing their lessons around these scientific phenomena to bring those voices into their classrooms.”

Ultimately, the beneficiaries of the effort put in by B-WET teachers — whether physical, as in kayaking to fort Proctor, or mental, as in crafting engaging, hands-on lessons — are Louisiana’s students.

“Over 50 percent of Louisiana is in a floodplain,” Diiullo observes. “so everybody has to have a relationship with water, whether it’s the Mississippi river, whether it’s the Gulf of Mexico, whether it’s a really rainy season. We all are connected to water here in some way, shape, or form. And if we want our students to grow up and be part of the cohort that has to protect and restore or maintain the coast, we need to show them the problems, we need to show them the solutions in place now, and we also need to show them possible future innovations.”

And NCSE’s Touchet will be there to help make that happen.

Paul Oh
Short Bio

Paul Oh is Director of Communications at NCSE.