DEDHAM — Like many of Maine’s students, Rhonda Tate’s eighth-graders are now on summer break.
In fact, they’re no longer eighth-graders at all. Soon, they’ll enter the wider world of high school, filled with equal parts stress, opportunity and wonder.
Thanks to Tate’s class, they may bring a little more from column C to their freshman years.
In her science classes at the Dedham School over the last couple years, Tate’s students have gotten their hands dirty in the name of real, environmental research.
They’ve plumbed the local creek for species such as crayfish and a plant known as “rock snot.” They’ve scouted the school grounds for hemlock and Asian longhorned beetles. They’ve collected data and fed their findings into Vital Signs, an online platform for citizen scientists in Maine.
During a school cleanup last spring, they even discovered that an invasive plant species known as knotweed has been growing in the woods around the school.
Getting her students to carry out real research — what she calls “discovery science” — is partly what earned Tate a recent honor from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. She received the organization’s second annual McCarthy Education Innovation Award this spring.
“Rhonda is one of Maine’s most active, innovative and inspiring educators,” said Meredyth Sullivan, a member of the organization’s education staff, in a press release about Tate’s honor. “Her name immediately jumped to the top of our list for this award, based on her efforts to advance science education in our state.”
The Portland-based Institute runs the online Vital Signs program, which allows working scientists to draw from the data collected across the state.
In an interview, Sullivan highlighted the work of Tate’s students on that platform as an example of her innovative instruction methods.
That creative spirit was also on display during the last day of class for Tate’s eighth-graders.
After discovering the knotweed a few weeks earlier, they’d been carrying out research on its prevalence and possible properties.
The Asian plant consists of red stalks and resembles rhubarb. Like kale or Swiss chard — so-called “superfoods” — it’s believed to be rich in nutrients. According to Tate, it may have started growing in Dedham after getting trapped in soil and transported to the Maine town.
However it got there, she decided to have her students make knotweed muffins on their last day of class.
Cooking any kind of food was a first for Tate’s class, she said. It seemed like a relaxing, if intellectually engaging, way for 24-some middle-schoolers to spend their final, restless hours in the classroom.
In that class period, they also built rafts out of lab collection materials and raced them down the Mill Stream, which is reached via a 10-minute romp through the woods behind the school.
By the time they returned from the race, the baking muffins were puffed up and ready for consumption.
“Here we are, doing our part to prevent toxic species from taking over,” Tate said, as if giving a toast, before her students dug in.
“The knotweed tastes a little like pineapple,” said one boy.
“They all taste really good,” said another student.
“I’d do terribly on ‘Fear Factor,’” a third chimed in.
A fourth turned to the visiting reporter and suggested a headline for this article: “Get a taste for science!”
Tate’s methods aren’t entirely traditional, in part, because she didn’t immediately enter teaching upon graduating from college. From Holden, the 37-year-old spent several years working for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA, and helping run the annual Common Ground Country Fair in Unity.
She and her family now live in Otis, along with pigs that would be consuming any uneaten knotweed muffins.
She appreciates the flexibility the Dedham School’s administrators have given her. She insists on having her students carry out real scientific research, she said, because it’ll get them more engaged than studying text books all the time.
In her four years at the Dedham School, her students have partnered with researchers at Jackson Laboratory and Duke University. They’ve considered issues such as the overall health of the stream, and next year will be studying lobster embryos.
“There’s too much to learn in this world to not be using it,” she said. “At this level, it’s never hard to get the students motivated to go out.”