Instructor Ryan Dvorak

When the forest is the classroom

Alberni District Secondary teacher Ryan Dvorak takes students to the resource in project-based learning class.

LYNN SULLY

& WARD STENDAHL

Special to the News

It’s unlikely that you’ll hear the students in Ryan Dvorak’s Grade 9 class question the relevance of what they’re learning. That’s because the 14 students are part of a unique program where they demonstrate their learning through their work on a local woodlot, a Christmas tree farm, a fish hatchery and the area’s streams and parkland.

The Alberni District Secondary School (ADSS) Project-Based Learning Program was first launched in the 2008-2009 school year as a pilot project to explore how natural resource management could be used as a vehicle for academic instruction. Dvorak came on board to implement the program, which is still going strong thanks to support from the district, local businesses and community partners.

Every morning, students meet with Dvorak at ADSS and are bused two or three times a week to a one-room building on a Christmas tree farm and woodlot. It’s during this morning block that the students cover all of the academic content of the Grade 9 curriculum, spending at least half of their time outside engaged in experiential activities. In the afternoons, they attend the larger school for their electives.

“Math, science, English and social studies are integrated in almost everything we do,” explains Dvorak. “There are no silos here. We’ll start with math, move into English and pull back to science­—all depending on the student, the project we’re working on, the work we need to cover or the time of year.”

Dvorak says that the program’s focus on real-world projects makes it a transformational learning experience. In math, for example, he will teach students a concept such as measuring and calculating the volume of a cylinder.

As in a traditional class, students then get a chance to practice the concept.

But in addition to completing a worksheet or doing a couple of examples from a textbook, Dvorak’s students get outside, put on their safety gear and scale logs to demonstrate their understanding.

In a similar manner, students use their math skills to calculate the number of trees on the Christmas tree farm to provide a baseline for inventory, use trigonometry to calculate tree height in the woodlot, and use angle measurement for farm-mapping projects. Other tree farm-based projects develop their knowledge of business, project planning and silviculture.

Students use the solar-powered electricity system of the woodlot building to develop and design projects to investigate Ohm’s law.

They investigate chemistry by sampling and monitoring the water quality of nearby streams.

And ongoing work at a nearby fish hatchery —including egg takes—deepens their understanding of ecology.

For Dvorak, this process of “taking the abstract and making it real” is one of the key strengths of the program.

These authentic, challenging and relevant activities reinforce for his students that learning has value.

“In this program, there is a strong link between learning and outcome.

For our work on riparian restoration, for example, students are working alongside community organizations. Students know that they have a real job to do, and with that, a significant level of accountability. They know that if they do the job well, then they’ve done it right. If they plant a tree correctly, it will live. What they bring to their work matters— and it enables them to make that link between their learning and an outcome in a way that is far more concrete than a grade on a report card.”

Over the past few years, students in his class have partnered with local environmental organizations on fisheries enhancement projects.

Students in the 2013-2014 cohort planted several thousand trees along Dry Creek under the oversight of a registered fisheries biologist.

Others paired with the AV Lions Club to plant more trees.

Students also have the opportunity to apply their knowledge in building structures.

Through a partnership with Greenmax Resources, the class of 2008-2009 built much of the one-room woodlot school that is used by current students for their indoor lessons.

Subsequent classes—in partnership with the school district’s residential building maintenance program—have built structures used by ADSS and the woodlot, or purchased by local organizations.

“Part of my philosophy is that students should be doing long-term projects that are permanent, that do more than get filed in a binder or hung on a wall,” says Dvorak.

According to Dvorak, when students work on these types of collaborative and hands-on projects, engagement and motivation follow.

When he studied the outcomes of the program as part of his master’s degree in education, he found that participating students had statistically significant higher levels of intrinsic motivation for learning than others. The program’s emphasis on self-reflection also encourages students to become more aware of their learning process.

Dvorak believes that similar project-based learning programs could be developed at any school, anywhere in the province. “It’s a matter of following your passion. I’ve chosen forestry and natural resources because that’s what I love and the Port Alberni community is built around them. But you could run this program with a focus on agriculture or cooking or just about anything else.”

He also notes that creating an experiential project-based program around the defining characteristics of the nearby area is a good strategy for establishing long-term partnerships with local organizations. These partnerships enable students to take on quasi-professional roles of significant responsibility that directly benefit the broader community.

Program funding comes from the school district as well as from community organizations, industry associations and local businesses.

Dvorak names the BC Truck Loggers Association, Western Forest Products, Alberni Valley Community Forest Corporation, Greenmax Resources, the Alberni Valley Enhancement Association, the City of Port Alberni, West

Coast Aquatic, the Hupacasath and Tseshaht First Nations and others as important partners for providing program funding, in-kind support and expertise.

“Here, the forest is our classroom,” he says.

“As educators, we can do so many amazing things with what’s outside our school building when we are empowered and motivated to do so. I’m fortunate in how my class is structured. But even in traditional classes, there is a powerful shift that takes place when you get students out exploring the world and making that link between their learning, their experience and

their community.”

This article was reprinted with permission from Learn Magazine and is also available online at www.bcteacherregulation.ca/Magazine/Magazine.aspx.