Interview with Dwight Sieggreen

Presidential Award for Secondary Science Teaching, 1992

Martha Short

During his 36 years as a science teacher, Dwight Sieggreen became interested in expanding classroom learning beyond classroom walls, inspired initially by the EarthWatch Institute Expedition program. He gradually established numerous community partnerships to support his projects. He currently teaches seventh grade science in Northville, Michigan.

How did you get started in establishing community partnerships?

Even though we’re in an upper middle class school system, with kids coming from homes with parents who are professionals, there was never enough money to do what I wanted to do in my classroom. I was never content with the budget money allotted for our curriculum. It was important to me to offer kids experiences that they hadn’t had before. The way to do that was with external funding and help from organizations that would allow me to introduce new teaching tools into the curriculum that matched the state benchmarks.

I started by looking at what was available to teachers back in the mid-80s. The first thing I noticed was EarthWatch expeditions. I applied, was accepted, and participated in an expedition and met other teachers and a journalist who told me about resources that existed on both national and local levels. I returned to Northville enlightened, thinking there is more to my classroom than four walls. I developed a vision for what education should be.

The first thing that came to mind was to build a school garden. I looked for funding and reviewed the professional organization journals for resources. These journals often have resources that provide funds or materials. I found that every part of the country has a Garden Club that covers the area in which you live. I went to our local Garden Club and, over a period of two or three years, they contributed sufficient funds to build a school garden. When finished, we had 24 12-x-8-foot plots that were raised 10 inches off the ground. We bought soil, built a security fence, created a compost pile, installed a sprinkling system, and bought a lawn mower and weed cutter to take care of maintenance. We had the kids involved in all aspects of the garden and celebrated with a feast of vegetables every year in the fall.

What other community programs have you developed and where did you get financial support?

In addition to the garden, I created a reptile zoo in our school. Many animals were donated by people who no longer wanted them as pets or from the Michigan Humane Society. We were able to provide an environment suitable for reptiles. I started the zoo in my classroom. The school district received good publicity and good parent support for what we’ve done with animals and for treating them humanely. When I moved from one school to another, the school district decided to invest in converting a very large classroom into a real zoo. I found grant money and made this zoo a living classroom. They took the walls out and put in glass so kids can walk through the building and look into the large cages from the hall. The zoo was designed by experts. All the animals are in appropriate size cages and have the right light, ventilation, heat, and humidity.

After a period of time, I applied for two Toyota Tapestry grants and developed a Frog Nursery to raise some of the world’s unusual frog species. The kids have literally put the nursery together, constructing the filtration systems and maintaining the tanks. They do all of the water quality monitoring: ammonia, ph, nitrites, and nitrates. The school district had special full spectrum lighting installed and put in new electrical lines and circuits. Toyota funded the first grant for around $9,000 and the second one for another $2,500. We probably raised another $1,500 to $3,000 locally.

Another thing I connected with was the Fulbright Memorial Fund [http://www.iie.org/Programs/JFMF], which is fully funded by the Japanese government. They have helped fund some of my projects. The most recent project was taking four students, my bos, and the president of the PTA to Japan to search for the Japanese giant salamanders in the wild. We were successful in the middle of the night in a river outside of Kyoto, Japan.

Other resources are many, many award programs that provide funds to buy materials or fund a project for your classroom. Few people apply for awards. There are several award programs at NSTA for students and teachers. Toshiba has awards that go from $5,000 to $25,000 for classroom projects. Some programs, Toshiba, and Toyota Tapestry allow you to come up with the idea and apply for funding for your idea rather than having to write your proposal to match what they want to fund. NSTA also puts out a magazine called NSTA Reports, which publishes opportunities for teachers. Every professional organization has something like that. I spent a lot of time looking through those.

We also have after-school activities to raise money that pay for the animal care costs. The kids organize these events and teachers chaperone. We have raised sufficient funds to maintain much of the animal room requirement.

What advice would you give a teacher who wants to establish a community partnership?

The first thing is to have a real passion for the job and projects you want to do. That passion will show through in your proposal or letter of request to funding agents. People nationally and locally look for that passion when awarding funds.

Also, when you write a proposal, make it so simple that anyone can understand what you want to do. Make sure your proposal matches the items that you want to purchase. A proposal won’t get funded if what you want to do doesn’t match your request.

Another tip is to never take no for an answer. If somebody can’t fund your project right now, ask when you can reapply and rewrite it. Many times, I was refused the first four times and finally got it on the fifth. Be persistent and determined to accomplish your task.

Try to bring a partner into your proposal. When I proposed the frog nursery, I secured the Detroit Zoo as a partner. Having a National Amphibian Conservation Center working with me gave me a good chance of success. The chance of success is much less if you don’t have any experience and don’t include a partner that will teach you and help you along the way. Funding agents have a limited amount of money to give out and are going to give it to the people that have the best chance of achieving their goal.

Establish personal relationships with organizations and people. When I apply for these things, I call the people and get to know them. They won’t always be able to tell you why your project didn't win, but you can ask if your project sounds like a good idea. When you keep submitting proposals, they’ll be familiar with you.

Finally, become members of professional organizations such as NSTA or the state science organizations. They often publish opportunities in their newsletters and journals.

Do you have any advice for teachers who want to connect more with parents in these types of programs?

You have to take the initiative, and there are so many ways to do that. Currently we have an address list for 99% of our parents, and we let them know when things are coming up. Another Presidential Awardee in my building brought parents in to reintroduce native Michigan plants that have been disappearing in the wild. We now have them in front of the school.

How do you juggle your teaching responsibilities with the community partnerships?

That’s a real challenge. I’m here seven days a week. My fun is my work. I also have helpers. Last year, a student who just finished his bachelor’s degree in biology donated a year to work with me. He became a substitute teacher in our building as my sub if I couldn't be here due to other obligations. Also, I was able to send four kids every hour, every day, into the frog nursery to learn how about frogs.

How do you think your experiences with community partnerships contribute to the advancement of science reform?

I believe that when students get involved in community partnerships, everyone benefits—students and partners. Kids get to meet people in the real world, get to practice real field science, get a bigger picture of the science community, and see purpose to what they are doing in science classes. Science reform, in my opinion, requires teachers and students to get outside the traditional classroom into an environment where they practice skills they learn in classrooms. Science education is moving in a more practical direction. There are many new tools and technologies science educators have available to them. The use of these tools is enhanced when they are connected with the community partnerships. The end result is that partners in the community now have a better understanding of what goes on in the schools and then become friends and supporters of science education reform.

Finally, I believe these partnerships need to start early so that students are exposed to these experiences at an early age. Decisions about future careers are often made based on an exciting, unique, and special experience in school.

If you have any questions you would like to ask Dwight Siegreen about her experiences reaching out to the community, contact him at sieggrdw@northville.k12.mi.us

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