EPA Award-Winning Teachers Make Environmental Learning Active and Potent
But one thing that makes a teacher great, undeniably, is his or her ability to bring the outside world inside the classroom to students — to make them see how their lives are intertwined with what’s happening in the world.
Deirdre Bingaman teaches fifth grade at Donnelly Elementary School in Donnelly, Idaho, a tiny town that she says “is really, really isolated from a lot of the rest of the world.”
Bingaman constantly tries to get her 10- and 11-year-old students to appreciate how their actions affect the world. It is along that vein that she has, over the past few years, gotten her students to compile water quality data on nearby Boulder Creek and use the scientific method (everyone remember that?) in investigation-type projects. The students have been presenting their final results to Donnelly’s city council.
Then there’s the recycling project. It started with a query from a student: “Where does all that paper we use go? Does it go to waste?”
Bingaman’s students now routinely collect and quantify the amount of paper recycled at their school and convert that number into the amount of trees and energy saved. They are currently participating in an effort to invite all of the elementary schools in Idaho to participate, and requesting that they enter their results into an online database to determine the amount of trees and energy being saved statewide.
“If you just get them to see how they can make a difference,” Bingaman says, “it can change their whole world.”
She’s right, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed her efforts. Last month she was one of 18 U.S. schoolteachers, ranging from elementary to high school educators, who were honored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Bingaman and her fellow teachers were given the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators.
“To earn this prestigious award, each educator demonstrated teaching skills and innovative use of environmental education that connected students with the world around them in ways that will strengthen their education for years to come,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “Their lessons have put creativity and innovation, community engagement and leadership into practice, teaching students about civic responsibility and environmental stewardship. We are fortunate to have such educators in our schools today.”
These teachers, I came to learn, do more than just teach about environmental science and education; they go out and live it with their students.
In addition to speaking with Bingaman, I tracked down five of the other award winners to find out how they’re engaging their students and making them knowledgeable citizens of the world and its environs.
• Ed Lindsey, Old Town High School, Old Town, Maine. Ed Lindsey teaches ninth grade earth science and seventh grade environmental science, and a few years ago he got the idea for some projects from Acadia Learning, which provides professional development and scientific support to teachers who conduct studies of mercury in ecosystems across the region.
Lindsey began working with his students and taking them on field expositions to teach them about mercury exposure, and the usefulness of dragonfly larvae as sentinels for mercury levels in fresh water.
“We studied in the classroom that you can take citizens from anywhere and have them catch a sample of dragonfly larvae nymphs, and you can learn the effect of mercury,” Lindsey tells me. “I wanted to try to explain things easier to them, and showing them that chemistry is a real thing.”
While also calculating how mercury affects their watershed, Old Town H.S. students use their data to develop conclusions and present their results at a student poster symposium attended by scientists and resource managers.
One student, Jordan Tinkham, was very inspired by the work.
“It was very cool because we left school and went to streams and actually did a lot of hands-on research,” Tinkham says. “Mr. Lindsey makes it so easy to understand; I know want to study at an ecology program at [University of Maine].”
• Deborah Wasylik, Dr. Phillips High School, Orlando. Working in an enormous urban school, Deborah Wasylik knows her students usually don’t have much of an environmental background.
“They read about the environment, they hear about it, but with this environmental science class I started about 10 years ago, they actually see it,” Wasylik notes. “The environment is near and dear to teenagers, but they just don’t know what to do about it. We’re giving them that chance to do something.”
One of the projects that Wasylik’s students work on is called the Eco-Action team. Wasylik said the project was created four years ago because “Orange County public schools didn’t have an organized recycling program, and my kids wanted to reduce the footprint of the school.”
Dr. Phillips H.S. received a $3,000 grant from nearby Universal Studios to purchase bright blue recycling bins, and now the school recycles more than $50,000 in cans and bottles.
Another project that Wasylik’s students work on is the cleanup of nearby Lake Fran; the students haul $12,000 pounds of trash from the lake annually and report what they remove to the Ocean Conservancy.
• Frank McKay, Exploris Middle School, Raleigh, N.C. Frank McKay’s eighth-graders at Exploris Middle School wanted to do more than just explore Walnut Creek Wetlands Center, a local preserve that opened a few years ago about two miles away.
So they dived right in and helped map the place out. At Exploris, McKay explains, current events and outside environments help shape the charter school’s curriculum, not the other way around as is the case at most schools.
So McKay’s students partnered with a community group that was building the nature center at Walnut Creek. They helped create an oral history of the wetlands and received grant funding to publish a field guide of the place.
“We found a lot of non-human residents of our city,” McKay says with a chuckle. “We inventoried birds, mammals, insects; we even found some freshwater shrimp and a sea lamprey – something we never expected to find.”
“Kids leaving Fox River will not only have the academic skills, but also other 21st century skills that will be required, as stewards of the environment and their community,” she points out to me.
Part of that learning has come from the students’ work at nearby Pierce Park, a former trash dump. Velden’s students are converting it into an outdoor learning space, clearing undesirable tree species, constructing benches and bird houses and creating a trail with signs.
“The kids are doing a lot of the hard work themselves, lifting logs and doing a lot of manual labor under our supervision,” Velden says.
They are also working on a community garden project, which involves doubling the number of raised garden beds in the school’s garden (from 5 to 10), and on two microfarms during the winter. Fox River students grow lettuce, radishes and other fruits and vegetables, which are used by the school’s cafeteria, where students can have healthy, nutritious food.
• Patricia Lockhart, P.S. 57, Staten Island, N.Y. Patricia Lockhart is as passionate about her subject as any teacher you’ll find; the longtime youth educator has long been using her classroom to grow her students’ minds about the environment.
One of the many projects that Lockhart’s kids have been conducting is the “edible schoolyard,” which contains a greenhouse built with 1,500 recycled bottles, lumber and recycled PV. Inside are 10 beds filled with flowers, as well as a space for butterflies.
“We do a butterfly release in the garden every year, so we put mosquito netting inside the greenhouse so the butterflies can’t escape,” Lockhart says. “We’ve got more than 100 butterflies in there every year.”
Lockhart, who jokes, “I write grant proposals pretty much non-stop,” tries to think of projects for the students that will attract media and public attention. So one year, her students built a solar-powered adult tricycle; they plan to build a solar-powered hovercraft soon.
At P.S. 57, Lockhart’s students also plant fruits and vegetables in the school’s garden, including zucchini and strawberries, and help maintain the 17-acre wetland across the street.
Lockhart practically beamed while talking about her student’s yearly camping trips to upstate New York.
“The kids get excited about every project; it’s really so great to see their minds getting interested in the environment,” Lockhart says. “You ingrain a love of learning at a young age, and they stay engaged for the rest of their lives.”