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  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Fifth-grade science teacher at Bicentennial Elementary School, Lisa Saunders looks through the open door of her classroom, Wednesday afternoon. Saunders was recently named Elementary Environmental Educator of the Year by the New Hampshire Environmental Educators.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Lisa Saunders, a fifth-grade science teacher at Bicentennial Elementary School stands among trees behind the school. Saunders was recently named Elementary Environmental Educator of the Year by the New Hampshire Environmental Educators.
Thursday, March 17, 2011

Top environmental teacher in city

Michael Brindley

If you’re a student in Lisa Saunders’ class, be ready to get your hands dirty.

Whether it’s collecting samples along local river banks or planting bulbs, Saunders believes that for her students to truly learn and appreciate science and nature, they need to spend as much time outdoors as possible.

“Science is really knowing about the world around you,” Saunders said.

Saunders, a fifth-grade teacher at Bicentennial Elementary School in Nashua, was recently named the elementary environmental educator of the year by the New Hampshire Environmental Educators. The organization hands out three awards each year, to elementary, secondary and nonformal educators. Recipients “stand out as exemplary in their ability to engage students in environmental studies in lasting and meaningful ways,” according to a description of the award.

This year’s winners were recognized at the NHEE annual conference last week. Mark Pedersen, a science teacher at Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow, was the winner in the secondary category. Clare Long, a conservation educator with White Mountain National Forest, was the recipient in the nonformal category.

Saunders’ passion for learning outdoors was passed on from her grandmother and mother, both of whom were also teachers. Saunders spent a great deal of time outdoors with her mother, who was able to identify a wide variety of plants from memory.

Saunders has found that children these days aren’t taught as often to appreciate the outdoors at home.

“My growing up was just so different from what the kids experience now,” she said.

That’s why Saunders has taken it upon herself to help foster that appreciation in the classroom.

When Saunders moved up from teaching fourth grade to the fifth grade 10 years ago, she was able to develop her own science unit. As part of that process, Saunders took part in training with Project WET (Water Education for Teachers), a program run by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. The program helps teachers work with students on how to think about the environment, using water as a primary theme. Saunders has since been affectionately dubbed “water woman.”

Saunders said much of what she was able to develop was only made possible through partnerships with environmentally focused organizations throughout the community. For example, students in Saunders’ class will soon be taking part in the river classroom program through a partnership with the Nashua River Watershed Association. In May, the students will be learning about the history of the river, as well as using field guides to identify plants and animals they will have studied about in class. They will also get a chance to navigate the river by canoe, Saunders said.

Saunders also has students take part in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Adopt-a-Salmon Family program. Saunders often sees students who have problems paying attention inside flourish when an activity takes them outdoors.

“There is a whole movement going on now to get kids outside more,” she said. “Science should be fun and focused on observations about the world around you.”

Bicentennial principal Kyle Langille nominated Saunders on behalf of the school. Langille said Saunders is one of several teachers at the school for whom science is a passion, but what stood out about Saunders is her passion for the environment outside school.

For example, during the summer, Saunders collects samples from the Souhegan River to test water quality, Langille said.

“She’s out there with her boots, mucking it up in the mud,” Langille said. “For her, it’s a philosophy and a true passion. That really stands out.”

Saunders is a member of the district’s science curriculum committee. Langille said she is also part of a group of science teachers that works with other teachers in the district on how to use inquiry-based learning in their science units.

“She brings an excitement and true enjoyment to science,” Langille said.

Saunders gave credit to Langille and district leadership for giving her and other teachers the opportunities to take their lessons beyond the classrooms walls. It’s no coincidence Saunders works hard to get her students outside. It’s where she feels most comfortable, too.

One of her favorite activities is kayaking along the Nashua River.

“It’s such a jewel right in the middle of our city,” Saunders said. “There are so many animals. It’s so quiet and peaceful.”

The Learning Curve appears Thursdays in The Telegraph. Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or