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Environmental Detectives

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Leif Asper

Environmental Detectives lets students and after school providers engage in hands-on science and participate in authentic discourse that addresses relevant environmental science and social issues. It is important to note that an afterschool program will need to secure a dedicated space or create a mechanism for setting up and taking down the necessary "community center" for use in these activities. Beyond the planning necessary to secure the physical space and the necessary materials, leaders of afterschool programs will need to determine what, if any, scaffolding or instruction students will need in order to conduct the research and engage in the social interactions that are an integral part of this program.
Full Review:
Like many in the Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) series of instructor guides, Environmental Detectives is a rich mix of investigation, exploration, and hands-on science. In this case, students act as "environmental detectives" to solve a mystery that involves city and town experiencing a massive fish die-off in a watershed that includes forests, a coast, three rivers, a lake, and a pond. To figure out what is causing the death of these fish, students must investigate the cumulative effects of pollution, runoff, acid rain, and other environmental hazards. Along the way, students analyze a variety of possible "suspects" with lab experiments and critical thinking.

Environmental Detectives offers an interesting and unique take on the environmental education content area. The story line prompts a variety of relevant and realistic experiments, and also involves students in the kind of social interaction that might accompany an environmental disaster. The activities incorporate role-playing situations and interactive games. For instance, students reenact a meeting of the "Gray Area Board of Supervisors;" they play a game simulating deer population dynamics; and they hold a board meeting debate on the pros and cons of suggested solutions. The social discourse written into these activities gives students a unique look at the varying opinions and positions that play into environmental issues.

The social parameters and story line of the activities depend on laboratory experiments and literacy requirements that require multiple 45-60 minute sessions to complete. As the mystery develops, afterschool providers without a dedicated space or "headquarters" for students to use will need to create a portable space that can be moved or taken down between sessions.

Environmental Detectives requires common afterschool science materials, including consumables like white vinegar, baking soda, and coffee filters; and nonconsumables like plastic cups and 2-liter soda bottles. But you will also need some things that may not be readily available, such as an overhead projector and 3-ring binders (or 3-pronged folders).

As noted above, the students participate in activities such as debates and role plays that draw on language arts skills. These may be challenging for some participants and require preparation by instructors. Instructors may need to work with students to help them prepare for activities such as the community discussion, since an implicit expectation for this is that students are adept at using reference materials such as letters, business records, and "secret documents," as well as newspaper articles, charts, and graphs. This gives afterschool instructors a chance to integrate science with language arts, but instructors should be aware that they may need to spend time preparing their afterschool students to take advantage of the full range of activities.