Project-Based Outdoor Learning

St-Laurent Academy is fully committed to environmental education, equipping students with the ability to be part of the solution to our globe’s growing environmental concerns. We had the chance to sit down with St-Laurent Academy’s Science teacher Mr. Léveillé and discuss the values of project-based environmental learning.

Explain your approach to helping students understand about biodiversity and environmental stewardship.

It’s a lifestyle. I have to break down the walls of the classroom. Our whole existence relies on the natural world. I believe experiential learning with multiple intelligences is a valuable key to instruction. When odd things are needed, I create life-sized models. Our Macoun Marsh study site and outdoor classroom is used as a centre for conservation, geological, taxonomic, and meteorological studies. I believe in actively working in the community and tapping into local resources to bring down the walls of the classroom. I have learned that being an educator is not merely teaching but arousing the passion for learning. These students will inherit the burdens of our world and to be best prepared, their minds must be open, curious, and courageous and not simply locked up with today’s knowledge.

What makes St-Laurent different from other schools in terms of environmental learning?

We have been involved with the Convention on Biological Diversity. The UN took a special interest in our Macoun Marsh Project and then a few years after we had recognition from that project, we brought together youth from around the world in 2009 here in Ottawa. That came to a head with an International Youth Accord that was presented to world leaders and youth in Japan in 2010. That developed and has now evolved into an organization now as the Global Youth Biodiversity Network. There are representatives now with that group all over the world. It’s interesting how grassroots organizations worried about their backyards sometimes influence global issues. It really did grow out of this small tiny project, which is really cool.

With the Macoun Marsh Project itself, we’ve recorded over 1,4000 species in that little corner of the cemetery, and that number keeps going up! I don’t think it will ever end.

What’s the coolest or most surprising species you’ve seen in the marsh?

One of the most interesting ones for the local naturalist community is the blue spotted salamander. For most of Ottawa (and I’ve spent a lot of time looking for salamanders and other animals), there are very few places in the area where you can find blue spotted salamanders in the wild. The fact that you can find them right in the centre of Ottawa at this one location is completely awesome. Some of them are quite sizeable. Again, to be able to find them in the region is quite unique. I know a lot of people who have been naturalists all of their lives and who have never come across a salamander. The fact that we have a healthy population in the middle of Ottawa is quite amazing.

What are the students’ favorite animals or species in the marsh?

The kids love the salamanders, but they also love the painted turtles. And of course we get the little chickadees that like to land and sit on your hand. A lot of the city kids never have that kind of opportunity to get close to wildlife. They don’t have any experience with this stuff, and just to get a city kid to actually get their hands dirty sometimes is quite a challenge.

Another thing is phobias are on the rise. People are so afraid of their shadow when they get into nature. I think the media has a lot to do with it because we get this impression that all the evil people hide in the forest – I think it may start with Little Red Riding Hood. Nature is a lot less scary than it’s implied to be. The chances of meeting up with a bear are not that regular either – that’s probably the most daunting creature in our area.

What is the most interesting animal worldwide, in your opinion?

Two years ago I brought of group of students to Peru and to the Galapagos Islands and that was completely awesome. We got to see the giant Galapagos tortoises in the wild, lumbering around in the forest. They looked like small dinosaurs! That’s definitely one of my favourites.

The trip was done as a school activity, offered to parents and students. We had about 18 to 20 people on that trip. We have talked about the possibility of doing Costa Rica next year, and that would be an amazing opportunity. This past year, we brought a group to Orlando, Florida and we got to visit NASA and Epcot, and experience manatees in the wild. I have led field trips through Canada, Europe, USA, Central, and South America.

Exciting news: I will be bringing my Grade 9s to a meeting of the United Nations on Biodiversity Conservation in Montreal in 2 weeks. I brought some grade 7 students last fall to a similar meeting.

Do you have one takeaway message for students?

I think the most important thing for people to realize is that we are connected to everything. As some of the greatest naturalists have said, if you tug on anything in nature you’ll realize it’s actually attached to everything else. We are attached to that as well. We are part of nature.

Michael Leveille is a science educator and an artist of prehistoric life. Educated at the University of Ottawa, he has worked at the Canadian Museum of Nature and at St-Laurent Academy School in Ottawa.