Upper School Environmental Science Capstone Project: Our Students Become Teachers

Written by Maggie Epstein, Science Teacher

In honor of Earth Day, and as a capstone project for their senior elective, the Environmental Science class took on the challenge of becoming experts on an environmental issue and then educating and acting on that issue as well. Throughout the year, the class has focused on the depletion and sustainability of common resources. And while we span the breadth of the subject, there is rarely time to go as deep into specific issues as we may like. So, during the month of April each student chose a topic that they were personally motivated to address. In class and outside of school, they researched and found small solutions to the problem. Most excitedly, this was by far everyone’s favorite part of the project, they were tasked with teaching about their topic to a lower school class.

This was the first year I attempted this project (at this scale at least) and it was daunting. The seniors would have to budget their time and be on their own as “teachers” when it was their turn. However, as soon as the first lesson happened in mid-April, I knew it was going to be an amazing experience. Mary Rose Shields ‘18 and Haley Smith ’18 hadn’t just prepared lectures about deforestation and pollinators, they arrived in gardening clothes with soil and seeds, beaming with enthusiasm. Their lesson highlighted the importance of bees and trees within the ecosystem. They got their hands dirty with the Kindergartners, planting, teaching and being just amazing role models for the younger girls.

Similarly, Emma Bradley ‘18 and Gabbi Pettineo ’18 got the other Kindergarten class to rally behind polar bears. A visit from Winnie got the girls excited, but what really thrilled them was getting to experience how blubber insulates the bears and is vital for their survival. Learning about the importance of blubber was key to understanding how the bears are threatened when they have to travel further and further for food. Less food and more walking means less blubber and a very cold bear. The girls coated their hands in simulated “blubber” to test this theory. Their “blubber” covered hands stayed perfectly warm even in a bowl of ice water – some very fun hands-on science for sure!

Earth Day is a global day of awareness and Rhea Li ’18 was able to share her knowledge of Mandarin with the 1st grade – teaching them Earth themed vocabulary! The girls in her class were all joyful and eager participants leaning to say Earth, ocean, the highest mountain and more. Even the Pre-K was on board for an Earth day lesson. Kate Park ’18 and Dagny DeFratis-Benway ’18 taught them about the size and importance of the oceans. The girls had fun sorting aquatic animals and making their own watery “Earth” to take home. I know their lesson was a success as my own Pre-K daughter came home and told me how “litter is dangerous for all the ocean animals.”

Not all the lessons were quite as sunny though. Melia Hagino ’18 tackled water inequity with the 5th grade; Emily Thompson ’18 got 1st graders to consider their carbon footprints; Natalia Schafer ’18 and Julia Love ’18 warned about the dangers facing the coral reefs. Though these topics were complex, students were still engaged and excited for the experience. The seniors commented on the impressive level of intellectual curiosity from Lower School students and also on the incredible empathy they encountered on their visits.  Maya Hairston ’18 and Miyanni Stewart ’18 were concerned at first that Ms. Fitzpatrick’s 4th grade would be too young to understand the concept of environmental racism. They were confident though that the topic was one they wanted to address and they did so with incredible maturity and thoughtfulness. They had the girls participate in a roll play game that modeled the disparity among the environments of  some communities inhabited by people of color. They spoke to them about the causes and consequences of this injustice and allowed them to share their own thoughts as well. The experience was powerful for all involved. Maya reflected, “I was worried at first that this topic would be too much for fourth graders, but they handled it so well. I feel so honored to have presented in front of a class of such smart young thinking girls. I look forward to seeing them in the halls from now on!”

Beyond just learning and teaching, our class took action. In one month, the Environmental Science class, collectively,  raised money for the Natural Resource Defense council and the United Way, created an Instagram to promote reducing carbon emissions (you can follow it @iamparisca), signed numerous petitions, planted two trees, created a pollinator garden, reduced the flow on their toilets and more!

Watching students combine what they’ve learned with their myriad talents and skills was inspiring. I hope to not just continue this project but expand it to include even more of the Lower School and possibly the larger community in the future. As Haley noted in her reflection, “At the end when we were outside planting, a bee flew by and none of the girls flinched. They watched as it flew around and one girl said, ‘Don’t worry bee! My flower for you will be ready soon!’ This was an adorable moment that made me realize I had done my job.” I have to agree with her. As I saw all the photos of the girls from Pre-K on up to my class of 2018 smiling, learning and working together, I absolutely felt the same joy.

See more of our favorite photos on The Baldwin School’s Smugmug.