Groton-Dunstable High School teacher, Melanie McCracken stands out as an ideal candidate for an Excellence in Environmental Education award primarily for her service as a teacher leader in helping to pilot and implement a challenging new experiential outdoor learning project studying changes in forest composition over time for her own high school students and then going on to mentor other teachers in leading similar projects in a network of schools throughout Massachusetts. Melanie had already proven herself a solid project leader for another long term field study monitoring the length of the growing season for trees in her schoolyard. While she had already mastered that study, and was serving as a mentor for other teachers, she then went above and beyond to take on a brand new project and be one of only a select few chosen to pilot that study with her students. Not only did Melanie succeed at adding this project on to an already ambitious Environmental Science curriculum, she went on to share her work with an audience of scientists and teachers at Harvard Forest. Ms. McCracken partners with Harvard University scientists who help to provide scientific expertise to enhance teacher and student learning. Building off of the support of the Schoolyard Ecology program at Harvard Forest, Melanie has developed a range of teaching materials for both of these ambitious and complex projects which she has made available to over a hundred teachers who lead similar projects throughout the Northeast.
In addition to the 2 field projects mentioned above, Melanie also provides her students with another unique environmental project supported by more outside expertise from another nonprofit organization. Students in Ms. McCracken’s environmental club and class were given a special opportunity to work with Bryan Windmiller of Grassroots Wildlife Conservation last spring and summer. They trapped, and tagged two female Blanding’s turtles in the marsh beside the high school. The turtles were tagged with radio transmitters. Several community members who work with turtles joined in the project. The team followed the turtles with radio receivers over a period of a month and located two nests. The nests were protected and in the fall they checked the nests each day until hatchlings arrived. These babies are being raised in classrooms over the winter to gain weight and mature. They will be released on campus this spring and Melanie’s class will follow the females again and collect hatchlings to raise in the classrooms and release in the spring. Ms. McCracken received a $2000.00 grant from GDEF (a community based funding program) to purchase waders, radio receivers, and other equipment necessary for trapping and tagging turtles. Students help look after the turtles in the classrooms all winter and also help with trapping and tagging. Bryan Windmiller provides permits (Blanding’s Turtles are on the threatened species list for Mass.) and ecologists to work with students. This is the third winter they have raised hatchlings in the classroom, but the first winter that they raised hatchlings that they caught and collected on the high school campus. Melanie plans to continue to engage her classes in protecting and supporting the Blanding’s turtle population in Groton through this program which includes community members, students, teachers and Grassroots Wildlife Conservation Inc.
Melanie has involved between 25 and 79 Groton-Dunstable High School students in field studies each year for the past 5 years, reaching about 260 students overall. Her work is easily replicable in the sense that project protocols and resources are available to any grade 4-12 classroom in Massachusetts through the Harvard Forest Schoolyard Ecology program. However, most teachers find that taking on one project is more than enough of a challenge. Few are able to incorporate these 2 challenging projects at the same time. It is the amount of time and energy that Melanie invests in her students and the depth of experience she provides to them through this work that makes Melanie stand out among her peers. She is willing and able to take on new challenges and goes the extra mile to add many layers of depth into each of the learning experiences she presents to students. Funding for these projects is external. Melanie could continue to manage these projects on her own without external funding but it would be more challenging without the moral support of the network of teachers, scientists, and data manager currently available through this partnership with Harvard University and Grassroots Wildlife Conservation.