Want your middle-schooler to love science and grow into an adult who cares about the natural world? A "green" school -- one that infuses environmental education (EE) into its curriculum -- is a good place to start.
The need for EE has been widely accepted, and in the 1980s, the Washington State Legislature and the state Board of Education made EE a requirement in every grade and in nearly every subject. As a result, many schools integrate some aspect of environmentalism into their community, from recycling to encouraging students to consider packaging in their lunch options. Others incorporate fieldtrips and overnight education experiences. But there are some schools, public and private, that take the experience to the max.
In September 1999, the Lake Washington School District opened the Environmental and Adventure School (EAS). Housed on the Finn Hill Junior High campus in Kirkland, the 90-student charter school began with the broad theme of "Interdependent Relationships -- People and Environments." The school offers a three-year cycle of mixed-age classes with broader themes, such as "Where Have the Salmon Gone and Why Should We Care?," "Becoming 'U.S.,'" and "Earth on Edge."
Eileen McMakin, head teacher and one of the founders of EAS, says "We definitely see our students progressing consistently in academic work and scoring well on the WASL [test] in science and the core academic areas of reading, writing and math. The integration of environmental themes across disciplines creates relevance and makes it easier for students to see connections and grasp important ideas and concepts."
Professor Kim A. Kastens of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, agrees. "When you cast science education in terms of problems kids care about, they are more motivated and dig deeper. This is true for any age but especially middle-schoolers. Environmental problems tend to be real, complicated, multidisciplinary, and span across science, social studies, civics, geography, math and consumer science. It brings together a lot of threads of the educational curriculum," he says.
A sustainable school
Explorer West, a small, independent middle school in West Seattle, focuses on sustainability. The school combines an award-winning academic curriculum with wilderness experience. In science courses, students learn to see the earth as an integrated system, studying effects of subtle changes on the whole. In the global studies course students apply ecological footprint, carrying capacity, and systems thinking to global issues. Outdoor education teaches sustainable wilderness practices during trips to the Olympic Peninsula, San Juan Islands, and the Cascade Mountains.
Social studies teacher Ben Wheeler notes, "The idea is that kids have a natural affinity for the environment. They like being out in the woods -- it's a natural fit. They study glaciers, then go to Mount Rainier and look at one close-up."
A serious education
Outdoor education is part of the Waldorf philosophy, and the preK-8 Madrona School on Bainbridge Island uses its natural setting as an integral part of its classroom. Missy Goss, enrollment coordinator, explains, "We spend a lot of time outdoors. By seventh grade [students] go on a camping trip hiking and rock climbing at Soap Lake in Eastern Washington. They study the landscape in terms of the geology, spend a night looking at stars as prep for their astronomy block.
"We are lucky here on Bainbridge. At the lowest tide, the kids spend the whole day on the beach, playing and looking at marine life."
Though much of environmental education can sound like fun and games, it's serious business. Wheeler sums it up, "It's a generational issue. Our generation is starting to see the problems, so we can help frame it for kids and point them down the road. But it's going to be the students' generation that has to solve this problem."
Andrea Leigh Ptak is a freelance writer and graphic designer who lives with her husband and daughter in South Seattle.
- Environmental and Adventure School, Lake Washington School District, Kirkland http://schools.lwsd.org/EAS/
- Explorer West Middle School, West Seattle www.explorerwest.org
- Madrona School, Bainbridge Island www.madronaschool.org
- Report of the North American Association for Environmental Education and the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation www.neetf.org/pubs/EnviroEdReport.pdf
- Classroom Earth, a Web source for environmental education programs and curriculum www.classroomearth.org
- State Education and Environmental Roundtable (California) www.seer.org/
- Teaching Green -- The Middle Years: Hands-on Learning in Grades 6-8 www.greenteacher.com/middlebook.html
Originally published in the April, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.