Carol Visnapuu

Environmental science teacher Patrick Donovan invites his students outdoors to learn about lessons of reciprocity that are demonstrated on the land.

The 400-acres that Berkshire School calls home provide a scientific backdrop for students to learn about the diversity of environmental relationships on the land, bringing ecological awareness into the classroom.

This fall, environmental science teacher Patrick Donovan is inviting his students outdoors to learn about lessons of reciprocity that are demonstrated on the land. In a recent lab activity, his students observed asters and goldenrod, closely related groups of native perennials, to learn how they grow together in mutualistic ways while serving ecological functions.

In a Q&A with Mr. Donovan, we learn about the environmental science curriculum, his hands-on approach to teaching, and what he hopes his students will take away from his class.

Q: How is the book, "Braiding Sweetgrass" by Robin Wall Kimmerer woven into the class curriculum? Kimmerer’s writing and teachings are a foundational piece of the environmental science curriculum providing guidance and accountability for how we intend to build relationships with the land we are on in this class. We engage pieces of land history pedagogy, which asks us to reflect on who the first and subsequent people were on the land we are learning about, how they lived, where they are today, and our responsibility in response to what we are learning. As Kimmerer shares stories and scientific knowledge on topics such as water, air, soil, food and farming, maple syrup, and more, she asks questions and draws connections to how this land history shapes current ecosystems today. Kimmerer says of her book,

"...I offer...a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. This braid is woven from three strands: indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinaabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story—old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with the earth, a pharmacopeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other."

Students observe the asters and goldenrod behind the Bellas/Dixon Math and Science Center.

Q: What do students learn by observing asters and goldenrods? Students explore how the purple aster and the deep-yellow goldenrod (opposite colors on the color wheel) live in reciprocity with each other right in our backyard. At the same time, we are reflecting on how we will engage "science" as a class this year, and the scientific method specifically.

Inspired by Kimmerer’s writing and teaching, our observations and questions include: “Why do [asters and goldenrod] stand beside each other when they could grow alone?” “Why this particular pair?” Einstein himself said that ‘God doesn’t play dice with the universe.’ “What is the source of this pattern?”

Our hypothesis includes: “The real beholder whose eye they hope to catch is a bee bent on pollination … As it turns out, though, goldenrod and asters appear very similar to bee eyes and human eyes. We both think they are beautiful. Their striking contrast when they grow together makes them the most attractive target in the whole meadow … Growing together, both receive more pollinator visits than they would if they were growing alone. It’s a testable hypothesis; it's a question of science, a question of art, and a question of beauty.”

Our data collection involves the students dividing up between groupings of asters and goldenrods, and combinations of asters and goldenrod growing behind the Bellas/Dixon Math and Science Center. Students settle in their spot, make observations, and then count bee visits on a prescribed time frame. 

Afterward, we interpret results from our data collection and engage in dialogue around the lab findings and connection with bee populations around North America today. This will then connect us to a biodiversity investigation on campus, learning about the importance of biodiversity from local to global scales. Students will have opportunities to share their findings with the community while also advocating for future land-use practices to optimize biodiversity, interconnectedness, and regeneration on the land. 

Students press their flowers as a keepsake from the asters and goldenrod lab activity.

Q: Why did you select this specific activity for your students? I designed this activity with several intentions. One being that all humans can practice science, learn from, be in tune with what is right in their backyards, and explore the teachings of reciprocity from asters and goldenrods. Kimmerer shares in her book,

"That September pairing of purple and gold is lived reciprocity; its wisdom is that the beauty of one is illuminated by the radiance of the other. Science and art, matter and spirit, indigenous knowledge and Western science—can they be goldenrod and asters for each other? When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response."

Q: What do you hope students will take away from your class? I hope students take away practices and skills needed to explore their relationships with the world, the ecosystems, and the communities they are a part of and depend on. I invite students to experience the varied environmental and social interconnections of life on Earth and all that sustains it. I ask students to critically think about the ways that climate, environmental, and social injustices are unequally experienced across race, gender, and class, and how the land history impacts the present and future. In the end, I hope that students deepen their understanding of the realities we are facing as one human race on this shared planet today and looking forward, and simultaneously offer ways for them to find belonging, hope, opportunity, and love for the earth that provides us everything we need to thrive over time.