By Gretchen Webster

The students in Sue Teyan's science classroom at Greens Farms Academy are learning about the environment -- not online, not sitting in a classroom -- but outside in the environment.

They're part of a collaboration between their school and the Connecticut Audubon Society, and their research on forest health will ultimately benefit Audubon land holdings.

"This hands-on stuff makes you learn," said Les Gilman, a Greens Farms student.

His classmate Jad Qaddourah agreed. "It's nice to get outside for a class -- you learn from it," he said.

The students are performing authentic research, measuring the health of a forest on Audubon property abutting Greens Farms Academy, and comparing what they find with research they perform in the Audubon's Larsen Sanctuary in northern Fairfield. They have already performed field work in both places, observing the health of the forest by taking notes on the number of dead trees, checking the soil, measuring tree crowns, counting the variety of plant and animal species, and more.

So far, the results are clear -- the overgrown and unmanaged Audubon property near their school is not very healthy compared to the Larsen Sanctuary, the students agreed during Teyan's environmental science class on Wednesday.

"The Fairfield Audubon Society property is more diverse and matured," said student Ritozher Saingbe.

That means that invasive species have overwhelmed many of the native plants on the Audubon property off Beachside Avenue adjacent to their school, explained Michelle Eckman, director of education for the Audubon. Biodiversity is key to the health of an environment, she added, and the students, who started the project this fall, have already learned that from first-hand observation.

The students are learning the scientific method by doing their own research, analyzing data themselves and drawing conclusions. The goal is for them to come up with some methods to promote a healthier environment, and possibly to eventually become environmental scientists themselves said Eckman, who visits Teyan's classroom, gives workshops and accompanies the students on their field work.

The project is part of the Connecticut Audubon's SOAR program (Student Opportunity for Authentic Research), that was started at Trumbull High School, and is also in Bridgeport schools, according to Eckman. Greens Farms Academy was the first Westport school to participate, she said.

Teyan said she took on the Audubon project to get her students to find another way to learn about science apart from Googling information on the internet, which students do too often when left on their own, the teacher said. And her additional goal for the project is for her students to become more active in assessing environmental problems and coming up with real solutions.

"I wanted this class to not only learn about it, they're actually going to do something about it," the teacher said.

The project will continue throughout this school year, and will be continued in subsequent years, Teyan added, with participation not only by the juniors and seniors in her environmental science class, but also with other younger students at the school.

"It's cool that our community is so aware of our environment, and how we're doing research to see what we can do," said one of her students, Caitlin Ball.

Katherine Jack said it's still too soon in the project work to know exactly what she and her fellow students will do to help improve the Audubon property they're studying. They need to first find out exactly what the problems are in that specific ecosystem, she explained.

But one of her classmates said she is certain that the students involved in the project definitely will improve their environment -- and the sooner the better.

"If we can change our corner of the ecosystem in a small way then everyone should try to change their corner of the ecosystem," Saingbe said.