Here at Regents School of Austin our campus is blessed to have a science and nature center. It includes a barn with stalls for farm animals, a large chicken coop, an amphitheater-like area for outdoor events, a classroom with tables and benches, and a sizable garden area for students to plant both fall and spring crops. Each class in grades K through 4 has on its weekly schedule a science and nature studies period in which the center is the classroom.
The nature center began about 13 years ago as a labor of love. A number of Regents families sought and received permission to reclaim an under-utilized corner of the school property that had been the site of a homestead and farm for several generations. The original farmhouse was gone and the barns and outbuildings were in disrepair. The families organized volunteer workdays and raised funds in order to give the students at Regents the fabulous facility now known as the Regents Science and Nature Center.
With the facility in place the teachers were invited to bring their students and plant gardens, take nature walks, or visit the animals at the barn. Many came and learned. Some came often, some came occasionally, and some came not at all. I worked here part of the time, when I wasn’t farming, to help the students with their gardens.
When Rod Gilbert became our Head of School, he decided all students should have the opportunity to learn at the Nature Center. He added Science and Nature Studies to the class schedule for kindergarten through sixth grade. I came on full time to work with the classroom teachers and develop curricular connections for the students. This will be our eighth year on the class schedule and we continue to grow and flourish.
The Regents Mission Statement is at the core of all activities and lessons. It states:
“The mission of Regents School is to provide a classical and Christian education, founded upon and informed
by a Christian worldview, that equips students to know, love, and practice that which is true, good, and beautiful, and challenges them to strive for excellence as they live purposefully and intelligently in the service of God and man.” Each lesson or activity should include elements that lead to understanding (to know), attract attention and stimulate the emotions (to love), and reinforce the acquiring of wisdom that informs the will (to practice). Using (and honing) our skill of observation and tapping into our curiosity, we begin to explore our world. With grade level science curricula and a Bible we discover the creatures and materials that are a part of our amazing planet. We are participating in what is probably the original pedagogy! Rom. 1:19-20 states; “…what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes- His eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, because they are understood by what has been made.” As we begin to discover “His invisible attributes…” we can begin to see ourselves in a more biblical way. After all, He has made us in His image! Pursuing a deeper understanding of God by studying the created world leads directly to a better understanding of ourselves as bearers of His image. It leads to a better understanding because it is the habitat designed specifically for us. This is surely at the heart of any true educational endeavor- to know our God and to know ourselves. Science and nature are simply the vehicle for this journey.
In Kindergarten we begin the year in Genesis with the creation account. We study the five senses and see how they can gather information about our environment. We study insects, the solar system, wildflowers, oceans, and we grow lots of carrots in the fall.
First graders learn about the animal kingdom.
We begin with insects, learning key characteristics and observing life cycles. We make our way through some of the more notable classes; arachnids, fish, mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians; learning key characteristics and finding out that some characteristics are unique and some are shared. With each subject the students make an entry in their science and nature sketchbooks. A drawing, along with sentences relating the characteristics, becomes a record of our lessons and experiences with the animal kingdom.
Second grade science is focused on the plant kingdom. After an initial lesson on the variety within the plant kingdom, we narrow our focus to the flowering plants. The study is introduced to the students as “Parts of the Plant!” followed by the student’s dramatic “DAH, DAH, DAAHHH!”. We begin with seeds and discover the two types of flowering plant- monocots and dicots. We also see three main jobs (supply, support, storage) of each part. Lessons continue on with roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruit which brings us back to seeds. At each part we see the differences between monocot and dicot and look for the three main jobs. Along the way we check the Bible for insight into how the parts help us to understand God, His kingdom, and ourselves. Some examples: Seeds- Gen. 1:11-12; 1 Pet. 1:23; Mark 4:30-32. Roots-Prov.
12:3; Eph. 3:17. Stems- John 15:1-5; Isa. 11:1. Leaves- Gen. 1:30. Flowers-Ps.103:15; 1 Pet. 1:24. Fruit-Gal.5:22-23; Luke 6:44-45.
Second graders also study the fungus kingdom for a month right after Christmas break. (It’s an invisible kingdom that is always around us, even in the air we breathe, and we only notice it when it produces fruiting bodies. What does that sound like a metaphor for?)
Third graders begin with simple machines and ancient Egypt. We do an archeological dig and build life- size working shadoufs. The students bring food scraps from home and make compost in order to study the decomposition cycle. We observe the changes, learn the three states of matter, investigate the creatures involved with magnifiers and microscopes, and are in awe of the Creator who has thought of everything! We then move on to earth science where we find out about our amazing spaceship Earth (where we get to ride on the outside!). Moving through space at an approximate speed of 575,000 miles per hour we learn about the crust, the mantle, and the core. We learn of rocks and minerals, tectonic plates, earthquakes, and volcanoes. AWESOME! There are so many scripture lessons here.
Fourth grade studies pond life at our large pond complex. Complete with waterfalls, a stream, a bog, and 3 large fish ponds there is plenty to keep us busy. We put on waders and get in which leads to many exclamations of “best day at the garden, ever!”. Fourth graders also learn about sound and light. We finish the year with a study of body systems.
Now, a few words about why we teach. Romans 12:2 states “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” The Regents Mission Statement, mentioned above, is basically a restating of this scripture. With the mind we think, we believe, we understand, and we form our individual worldview. We live in a fallen world and a culture that continually hammers us with information. Most of this information is void of any mention of or reference to the Kingdom of God. The implication of this Scripture is that without renewing our minds we will not know God, His will and Kingdom, or ourselves. Eph. 4:11-13- “It was He who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, that is to build up the body of Christ until we attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God- a mature person, attaining to Christ’s full stature.” Teaching is a calling given by Jesus. Some might say that this scripture pertains only to the church but we are the church and all of life is included in our relationship with God. As someone has said, “All is sacred. Nothing is secular.” I agree. This means that no matter what topic you happen to be teaching, it can only be understood properly by recognizing its relationship to God, His kingdom, or ourselves who are made in His image. In the verses from Ephesians above, it states that the reason He gave teachers is to help us move towards “attaining Christ’s
full stature.” No pressure! The first thing to realize is that we are all on this journey together. Some of us are just farther along which positions us to be of service to those coming after. Nature studies allow for us to discover God together. Instead of stories about God we see His creativity on display. I have found that it usually takes less than one minute for the students to find something that excites, amazes, or raises questions. This is much more than a fun activity for students. This is discovering who we are by learning about the environment/habitat in which we were physically designed to live. A turtle is designed to live in a pond spending its time seeking food, sunning itself , and interacting with other turtles. If you take the turtle as a
baby and raise it in a box in the corner of your bedroom, away from the pond, other turtles, or even the sun, it will
never be able to truly function as it was designed. Similarly, we have taken ourselves out of our natural habitat and
now live in carpeted, climate-controlled boxes staring at screens. Is it any wonder that we struggle with confusion on nearly every front? Confusion about where we came from. Confusion about what is objectively true, good, and beautiful. Disconnected from the Garden and the Creator by sin, we strive to find comfort. Comfort for our bodies through climate control, comfort for our souls through décor and diversion, and comfort for our spirits through cloistering ourselves away from the fallen world. Just going outside will not automatically fix everything, but time in nature and nature studies, as an integral part of a person’s upbringing and education, can provide many opportunities to learn who we are and grow into the people God has made us to be.
Before God made man in His image, He made a place for man to live. That place was a garden. Romans 8:19 states,“For the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.” The creation not only displays the glory of God but, also, the effects of the fall. Weeds, thorns, drought, creatures which bite or sting, oppressive heat, or freezing cold all testify to the fact that something is not right. Romans goes on to say, in verse 22, “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together…” Psalm 19:1 says “The heavens declare the glory of God…” When God wanted to make a point with Abraham, He used the stars or the sand. When He announced the birth of Messiah, he did so in a field. Jesus took His first breath in a barn among the livestock.
God speaks to us in three distinct ways; through the Bible, by the Holy Spirit, and through His creation. We can help our students know God, themselves, and His Kingdom if we just get back to the garden. If you listen carefully, you will hear the stones cry out “Great is the Creator!” and you can hear the Father saying, “ I love you.”