Graduate School

Investigating the natural world: the Tiorati Workshop for Environmental Learning

Posted by Elisabeth Jakab on September 21, 2005

“What is so gratifying about the Tiorati Workshop is the excitement and curiosity of the school children who visit,” says Don Cook, its Director. “They are thrilled to be studying about nature on an actual nature site. In their thank you notes they tell me what they’ve seen and draw pictures as well.

Illustrations by Lismeiry Garcia, who visited Tiorati with her class.One wrote that the class saw lots of deer tracks and bear tracks in the snow, and that ‘We almost found a deer!’ Another wrote that ‘It was wonderful because I was like a scientist doing research. I learned about salamanders, ants, snails, larvae, earthworms.’”

“While Tiorati is a laboratory for children to make discoveries about the natural world,” Don continues, “it is also a laboratory for teachers to investigate teaching through inquiry.” Located forty miles north of NYC in Bear Mountain/Harriman State Park, NY, the Tiorati Workshop for Environmental Learning was founded in 1976 as a collaborative venture between Bank Street College and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission. Tiorati offers field experiences for elementary school classes in NYC and the surrounding area.

Last year, thirteen classes visited Tiorati, each taking three day-trips during the winter and spring.

“We meet with teachers beforehand in their classrooms to plan each workshop and prepare them to lead the trips,” says Don.

“We observe the ongoing program and collaborate with the teacher to design study projects to expand and enrich that program.” The Director of a Lower East Side public school wrote Don that, “In an urban setting, it is not often easy to immerse children in studies of life cycles and physical phenomena. Tiorati gives us the vehicle to do so and bring it back to the classroom.” Susan Wu, a Museum Education program graduate, began at Tiorati in 2003, and now takes the lead in the schools program.

This creative collaboration with teachers, Don points out, distinguishes Tiorati from most other nature centers, discovery centers, and science museums, which typically offer programs that educate about an exhibit or a site. Since 2003, Tiorati also has provided a Saturday professional development workshop in which participating teachers explore the natural environment and consider connections to their curriculum. Don feels this helps teachers formulate science programs with the kind of depth and “bounce” that makes science come alive for kids. “We also try to help teachers connect the study of the natural world to appropriate parts of their language arts, math, and social studies curriculum,” he adds.

Illustrations by Lismeiry Garcia, who visited Tiorati with her class.A Saturday parents’ workshop, run by Tiorati staff and participating teachers, also began in 2003. “Our immediate goal is to prepare parents to accompany a class trip, so children can be divided into small groups, which makes for more effective exploration.

Our larger purpose is to help parents understand how to use local parks to cultivate curiosity about nature in their own children,” says Don.

Tiorati’s environmental teaching is also part of the Graduate School curriculum. Students specializing in the Childhood Education programs can take Don’s course, “Integrative Learning for Children in the Natural Environment,” which currently consists of six Saturday sessions at Tiorati. Students in the Middle School Education programs take a course at Tiorati in July.

“The Palisades Interstate Park Commission provides the upkeep for the Tiorati building and grounds, and is hugely interested in and supportive of our work,” says Don. Con Edison has generously funded the Workshops since the 2003-04 school year.

“They increased their grant by a third this year,” he adds. Don is also seeking more funding to expand the number of workshops and add new staff. “We could do so much more!” he exclaims.