The school year has begun and teachers across the region are busy creating learning experiences to help grow their students’ minds. For 36 Sonoma County teachers, this includes participating in Pepperwood’s SCENIQ program (Students Conducting Environmental Inquiry). For Connie Petereit, who teaches 2nd grade at Healdsburg Charter School, this will mark her 9th year participating in SCENIQ. I was curious what it is about the program that draws her and her students back each year, and I had a chance to catch up with her to ask her just that.
Interview with Connie Petereit
By Holland Gistelli
Twice every school year, Connie Petereit brings her students to Pepperwood Preserve to take part in the SCENIQ program. What is it that keeps her and her students coming back each year? For Connie, it’s in part about the exposure to nature: “many of my students have not spent time in nature,” she said, “or even thought about spending time in nature.” Pepperwood’s SCENIQ program provides an important opportunity to engage with nature at a critical age. But Connie is quick to note her appreciation of the pace of learning, “[at school] we’re so used to sending them off to this activity, and doing this, and on to this subject, and now it’s lunchtime…” she said, “but when we come [to Pepperwood] it is a chance to be present, be aware of your surroundings, to notice things.” Slowing down, being present, recording what is seen and connecting to it: these principles form the core of the science practices taught in the SCENIQ Program.
Connie sees the value in this learning process for her students, “It is a powerful experience. It encourages kids to see more, to focus, to notice details, and use words to describe it. It builds language and the capacity to appreciate nature. It builds capacity to learn from each other, students observe and interact with each other.” Beyond the learning and personal growth this provides for her students, she also voices the importance on a long term scale, “Unless we take the time [now] to provide experiences that honor kids’ innate curiosity they have with life, we’re going to have a generation that’s missing out, and it will affect the history of our planet.”
Connie makes it a priority to connect her students’ experiences at Pepperwood with their day-to-day learning by incorporating activities that contribute to environmental stewardship. For example, her class focuses on recycling and composting to build their awareness around waste and responsibility. The result, she says, is that “they are more aware and [are] making more educated choices, not just throwing things away.” They are asking questions like “Can I compost this?” and realizing what they can compost, reuse and recycle. This year they will weigh the garbage they are throwing away now and again in a month to see if they’ve decreased their waste. Her class also raises steelhead trout through the Steelhead in the Classroom program, learning about the habitat needs of steelhead and the challenges they face. Connie recognizes how important it is for her young students to feel like they did something that makes a difference. Kids want to be a part of their community, they want to make a difference, and they are very receptive to learning through action.
Pepperwood’s education programs allow for not just academic learning, but social and emotional learning as well. I asked Connie if she notices a difference at Pepperwood for students who typically struggle in the classroom setting. She quickly recalled an experience one student had on their first visit here. He was struggling to regulate his behavior in the group, so our environmental educators took him aside to meet Pepperwood’s good-natured education animal: a gopher snake named Sergio. “He had all these questions about it,” she remembered, “he was very engaged.” Afterwards, she asked him if he wanted to try and be with the group again. He said ‘yes’ and maintained excellent behavior for the rest of the trip. “He had a desire to be in nature and really rose to the occasion—that experience allowed him to engage and participate on a level that he hadn’t all year.”
In summing up her thoughts on the SCENIQ program, Connie reflected that over the last several years, “SCENIQ has honed its focus. Everyone who is involved has incredible skill in teaching.” Instilling a love of nature is about recognizing all the moments and pointing out the little things. “They utilize every moment yet there is never this sense of rush. There is always the sense that we have time to look, talk, observe, journal. There is time to share, in a very calm way.” Pepperwood’s education team knows that school environments can be rushed because there’s a lot going on, and much to be done. They also know that to develop a relationship with nature, kids need to be able to slow down and breathe it all in. That’s why they structure SCENIQ to allow more quality time for students to absorb their environment. “Coming up to Pepperwood feels like that sigh of relief,” Connie said, “like, Ahh…I’m here.” For Connie’s students, “Pepperwood is always one of their most favorite places to visit, and the fact that they get two visits each year is just wonderful. The students get to create a relationship with the educators here, and with Pepperwood!”
Here at Pepperwood, we find great joy in sharing our love of nature with tomorrow’s environmental leaders. We’re so grateful to Connie for bringing her students out every year for our programs, and for taking the time to share her perspective on our programs. If you’re looking to get involved or just want to learn more about Pepperwood’s SCENIQ program, click here.
The SCENIQ program is made possible through generous donations from individuals, members, and foundations including the Kimball Foundation, Clif Bar Family Foundation, and the Healdsburg Forever Grant from the Community Foundation of Sonoma County. We’d like to extend our sincere gratitude to these donors who provide critical support for this program.