Grants to bring nature programs to 10 area schools

By Scott Merzback Staff Writer
January 16, 2022

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

AMHERST — Behaviors of squirrels and foxes, such as how the animals gather food and their methods of survival, are being featured in Crocker Farm School lessons for kindergartners and third graders.

“Systems and Cycles: The Ecology of Our Own Place” is the residency program, led by an instructor from the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, that is giving about 140 children, including sixth graders, outdoor, nature-based and hands-on learning opportunities in science, engineering and sustainability.

Funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Students And Teachers working with Artists, Scientists and Scholars, or STARS Program, Crocker Farm is one of 10 area schools participating.

Colleen Kelley, Hitchcock’s director of education, said most of the residencies being funded by the state are outdoors and allow the organization to work with school systems to establish the narratives, name the programs and align them with the school curriculum.

The grants are up to $5,000 for each school. “We appreciate that science can be a necessary part of cultural teaching,” Kelley said.

The Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For many years, the Hitchcock Center has been bringing such residencies to schools so that children can connect with the natural world through experiential environmental science programs. This allows the organization to make its programming more accessible to all and to better address issues of climate change, with hope that students who connect more deeply to the natural world will be the environmental leaders of the future.

Meantime, the Holyoke Cultural Council is similarly supporting visits from Hitchcock educators, who will lead nature walks for families showcasing the biodiversity of publicly accessible lands, flora and fauna in their city.

The project aims to highlight that there is no need to travel far to be in nature, and aims to give program participants a clearer relationship between their lives and the outdoors, which can lead to a larger conversation about conservation.

In addition to Crocker Farm, the STARS Program is supporting residencies at the other two Amherst elementary schools, Fort River and Wildwood, East Meadow School in Granby, and Hatfield, Pelham and Shutesbury elementary schools. Elementary schools in Ware, Gill and Rowe will have similar residencies.

Program titles include “Ecosystems are Local! Schoolyard Explorations and STEM,” “Animals of Shutesbury: Exploration and Engineering,” “Chain Reaction Machines in the Classroom,” and “The Earth We Live With.”

Hitchcock’s Executive Director Billy Spitzer said the funding is a benefit to his organization and area schools. “They enable us to partner with schools and communities to bring experiential environmental education to many more children and families in the region,” Spitzer said.

During this school year, most residencies are back to being in person after the COVID-19 pandemic required them to be virtual in 2020 and 2021.

Massachusetts Cultural Council Executive Director Michael J. Bobbitt said in a statement that STARS residencies impact thousands of Massachusetts children.

“Nothing is more meaningful than watching a child’s excitement grow because they are introduced to a new way of thinking, creating, or expressing themselves,” Bobbitt said.

All elementary schools in state Rep. Mindy Domb’s 3rd Hampshire District are participating.

“I am thrilled about this exemplary collaborative effort to bring the scientific expertise of the Hitchcock Center to our schools for the benefit of our student’s learning experiences,” Domb said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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