(Above) Youth in a fire science class at MacLaren’s Lord High School calculate the measured precipitation in a rain gauge.
Precipitation plus passion equals a successful educational experience.
At least that’s the case for a fire science class at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility’s Lord High School, where a group of a half dozen students not only learned about air pressure and precipitation, but they became active participants in using data in the real world.
In addition to classroom lessons, the students in Jennifer Hastings’ class submit daily weather numbers to CoCoRaHS (the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network), which the National Weather Service (NWS) uses for forecasts. They collect this information using a sling psychrometer to measure temperature and humidity and a rain gauge to measure precipitation. While anyone can apply to be a data collection site, MacLaren has the only active registered station in the Woodburn area.
In fact, the National Weather Service issued a flood watch for the area earlier this year, based on the data collected by MacLaren youth.
While the youth may not fully realize the importance of their data to the National Weather Service, Hastings said, they do recognize how different the class makes them feel about science.
“In most other classes, the day-to-day is taking notes, then taking a test or quiz,” Taylor said. “Here we didn’t have that. We covered something new every day and made connections that we could process. It allowed us to learn a lot more.”
When Hastings came to MacLaren for her student teaching assignment through George Fox University, she asked students what kind of science they were interested in learning during a 90-minute period that usually lands during free time. Alex suggested fire science, as he hopes to transfer to Camp Riverbend Youth Transitional Facility in La Grande, which hosts a successful wildland firefighting program.
“I was needing to catch up on credits to graduate,” Alex said. “It’s been really good because it’s been hands-on learning.”
The suggestion hit close to home for Hastings, whose last career was in wildland firefighting. In fact, supervising Linn County Juvenile Department work crews inspired her to pursue a career in teaching.
Hastings asked to complete her graduate program at a correctional facility because of her personal experience as an at-risk youth who had one teacher help her believe in her abilities. It was because of that teacher that Hastings went from nearly dropping out of school to being a Ford Family Foundation scholar.
“I just want to pay it forward what a teacher did for me,” she said. “I believe teaching starts with rapport-building, [and] respecting a student’s path that led them here … Knowledge and education can break the cycle of poverty and crime, and change lives.”
Her passion has rubbed off on the students, who have even started leading groups in their units outside of class time, teaching other youth how to read weather instruments.
“I have youth … from all over the MacLaren campus — some are not even in school anymore — ask me if they can help,” Hastings said. “By making relevant day-to-day connections as a regular part of their education, students can learn even the most rigorous of content.”
Though she hopes to return and teach in the near future, Hastings leaves her student teaching position this month. But the youth say they want to continue the work.
“We need to carry the torch,” Taylor said. “This class isn’t just about credits, but it’s about knowledge for after high school.”
That enthusiasm for science didn’t come easy. Students started the class at different places in their scientific knowledge.
“One student surprised me and said that he had not been in school since sixth grade and he had no clue that science could be so interesting,” Hastings said. “This is a youth that went from ‘What is chemistry anyway?’ in a pre-assessment, to presenting and explaining the chemical equation for an ignition source and photosynthesis.”
Connecting the lessons to the real world — especially when the snow and cold temperatures of this winter lasted late into the season — helped fully engage the students.
“When they were correctly able to predict and identify [weather] patterns using their own data, they were genuinely surprised at their own ability,” Hastings said. “They just needed to see science through a different lens.”
The students’ data is clearly valuable — they recently received a letter from the National Weather Service in Portland, acknowledging their hard work.
“We do ingest the information you all provide on a daily basis which goes directly into our forecasts, as well as to our national data centers,” reads the letter, written by meteorologist David Bishop. “That data then gets used in our forecast models. So, not only do you help us here in your local office better understand what exactly is going on, you also help the rest of the United States.”
Though she’s the teacher, Hastings said she’s blown away by how much she’s learned from the experience.
“I want everyone to know that these youth care about giving back to the science community (and) their education,” she said, “and that OYA has been the center of this special collaboration.”