Lower School Science Teacher Andrew Zielinski gets his inspiration from time spent outdoors. Here at Foote, he brings his passion for the outdoors into his classroom. And often, he brings his class outdoors.
Andrew is now in his seventh year at Foote, starting out as an Associate Teacher, then becoming a science teacher for grades 3–5. His first teaching experience was in Wisconsin as an educator for Nature’s Classroom. There he worked with visiting school groups of all ages in an experiential educational setting, incorporating the environment into traditional classroom subjects like history and science. After seeing how well those students connected with the material in that way, Andrew was inspired to share those same concepts with his students at Foote.
“In my experience as a teacher, I’ve learned that kids pick up on what you’re passionate about. Sharing those values can be an important way to connect with the students. I try to bring that into my teaching,” he said.
Andrew’s science students are often seen exploring the Sacred Woods, making deeper connections with our campus’ ecosystem through physical interaction. Sometimes his classes will meet outside simply to enjoy their lesson in a natural setting. He also leads an expansive fifth-grade unit on ecology, which includes a visit to the Milford Point Audubon, where students use official research techniques to explore the marsh and tidal ecosystems, and compare them to our more forested ecosystem on campus.
“What is unique to Foote’s approach to education is the way that we emphasize student-centric and student-driven learning as much as possible,” he explained. “I think Foote makes it possible to have a lot of really wonderful experiences both here on campus and through field trips.”
Those same research techniques they practiced in the marsh were put to work on campus, leading one class to discover an invasive species. Andrew said that this discovery led to an in-depth — but unexpected — discussion about invasive-species management, where the class dove into the same high-level questions that scientists worldwide are grappling with themselves.
“Being able to open that door a little bit for them, and really just giving them the space to open it themselves, is really inspiring,” he remembered.
By implementing a hands-on approach to all of his classes, he invites the students to explore and investigate, learning how to interact and engage with the material on their own terms. Encouraging independence for students at this age is really important, Andrew said. He is always there to help them find answers, but if they come up with one on their own, he'd love to hear it.
“I had a moment recently where I just kind of stood back along a wall in my classroom, and watched my classroom full of 4th graders at work. I didn’t have to really even be there. They were just that independent,” he beamed.
Of course, working with 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders has its share of unique challenges, but those are teaching moments that Andrew also embraces. He explained that working with these age groups might mean taking a momentary detour from science to discuss exhibiting appropriate behavior, conducting respectful interactions, and keeping excitement levels in-check.
“It’s the most exciting stage for me: students are still young and curious and really excited about school — and willing to show that they’re really excited about it,” he shared. “At the same time, they’re at a stage where they’re developing their own interests and starting to develop these really meaningful social relationships with each other and with adults in their lives. It’s just really exciting to be part of that and to help support them through that process.”
His appreciation for growth and development isn’t restricted to flora and fauna — or even to his students. He feels that growth is critical to being an effective educator. Andrew consistently looks for new ways to inspire his students. Whatever new ideas he decides to explore, he always wants it to incorporate an element of fun— like his favorite day, Dry Ice Day, where students conduct experiments with various forms of the material.
Sometimes even he is surprised by the results of his own projects. For example, in conducting a series of experiments using baking soda and vinegar, Andrew was using many different containers. One had a tiny hole punched in the cap; he set that aside, not intending to use it … until a student asked the inevitable question: “What if we used that one?” Andrew thought about the science (and safety) of it, and knew that the likely outcome would be that the pressure built up inside would result in a stream of bubbles erupting from the tiny hole — “and it’s gonna be awesome. Let’s try it,” he said.
Far from a tiny stream of bubbles, the resulting hydrogen gas — also dyed with green food coloring — erupted with such force that it reached the classroom ceiling, creating a giant green spot, surprising everyone (including the facilities department).
“The kids were rapt; it was totally unplanned based on a question that a student asked. So it’s fun for them and it’s fun for me, and it’s really wonderful to be able to share those moments with my students,” he said.
Andrew also places a high priority on connecting with the Foote Middle School science teachers to ensure that they are all working together toward a similar goal, and to ensure a smooth transition as the fifth graders become middle school scientists. Most importantly, he works to ensure that the students are supported in this same way throughout their Foote experience.
“There’s a community of faculty, families, students, administration, and even a broader community of people who really make Foote a special place to be,” Andrew said. “The classroom experiences of our students — along with what they learned from their families at home — really provide them with the knowledge that the world is a wonderful place full of awesome stuff. And you can ask questions about it, you can explore it, you can investigate it; there’s really no limit to what you can do.”