Thursday, September 20, 2018

Anna Comstock

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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, nature study was a part of the elementary school curriculum. It was an important component of a child-centered educational reform that aimed to replace passive rote learning with active learning. The subject matter--plant, animal, geology, weather, astronomy--was never intended to be standardized but adapted to take advantage of local natural conditions.

One of the pioneers and leaders of the so-called nature study movement was Anna Botsford Comstock (1854 - 1930) who received her degree in natural history at Cornell University (1885) and to which she returned in 1891 to teach natural history. She was known for taking her students outdoors to study nature. While at Cornell she wrote what was to become a standard textbook for teachers, The Handbook of Nature Study

According to Comstock this is what nature-study is.

Nature-study is a study of nature; it consists of simple truthful observations that may, like beads in a string, finally be threaded upon the understanding and thus held together as a logical and harmonious whole. Therefore, the object of the nature-study teacher should be to cultivate in the children processes of accurate observation and to build up...understanding. (p.1)

On teaching nature-study.

In nature-study any teacher can with honor say, "I do not know"; for perhaps the question asked is as yet unanswered by the great scientists. But she should not let lack of knowledge be a wet blanket thrown over her pupil's interest. She should say frankly, "I do not know; let us see if we cannot together find out this mysterious thing. Maybe no one knows it as yet, and I wonder if you will discover it before I do." (p. 3)

The relationship of nature-study to elementary science.

Nature-study is not elementary science as so taught, because its point of attack is not the same; error in this respect has caused many a teacher to abandon nature-study and many a pupil to hate it. ... In nature-study the work begins with any plant or creature which chances to interest the pupil. It begins with the robin when it comes back to us in March, promising spring. ... Nature-study is for the comprehension of the individual life of the bird, insect or plant that is nearest at hand. (p. 3)
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A picture book biography about Anna Comstock by Susanne Slade (illustrated by Jessica Lanan) titled Out of School and Into Nature is listed as a summer STEM read in the American Scientist. The book is for elementary school students (and others!). The link to the book provides several reviews.

Nathaniel Wheelwright, an emeritus professor at Bowdoin College, is one of many modern day nature study enthusiasts and practitioners. On his bookshelf is found a copy of the Slade-Lanan biography. With Bernd Heinrich*, he is the co-author of The Naturalists Notebook: An Observation Guide and 5-Year Calendar Journal for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You

I include Wheelwright's Ten Tips for Becoming an Observant Naturalist. In these tips you will find a sample of Heinrich's wonderful watercolors.

* Heinrich is an extraordinarily talented field naturalist, renowned at turning observations into clever, experimental studies. It is hard to know where to start on recommending one of his books. He has written very readable and accessible books about ravens, Canada geese, trees, bumblebees, the homing instinct, a personal reflection on living with an owl, long-distance running, nesting, thermoregulation, strategies of insect survival, essays, etc. Several of his books show how he goes about his work. I especially like Ravens in Winter and his book of essays, In a Patch of Fireweeds (Perhaps because it has a local example, lovely work on diving beetles, done at the Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories, University of Minnesota .) Here is a listing of his books.

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