R.I. Schools Stress Sustainability and Stewardship

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

SCITUATE, R.I. — The beat-up Chevy pickup taking up half the classroom is just one part of the environmental curriculum at Scituate High School & Middle School. Led by 2011 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year Shannon Donovan, freshmen are retrofitting the truck from a gas to an electric-powered vehicle.

The project is part of an innovative, first-year program that combines subjects such as English and physical science to give students a real-world appreciation for subjects that might not be appreciated by simply reading a book. The pickup acts as a tool for introducing other ideas, such as alternative fuel for transportation.

"I don't want to speak to one part of the student's brain," Donovan said. "I want to speak to the whole student."

This integrated approach is a piece of the environmentally focused curriculum Donovan has helped create during her nine years at the school. Donovan teaches physical science, biology, environmental science and chemistry, and runs the popular environmental club, all of which utilize an aspect of the nearby ecosystem.

"It's not just science, art, math and physics. It's all those things," she said.

Her classroom includes an adjoining greenhouse and an expanse of outdoors surrounding the school on Trimtown Road. This natural classroom includes raised flower beds and a nearby wooded area where students have built trail signs and revised a forest management plan.

This real-world teaching gives students a starting point for college and careers. Sophomore Nick Russo envisions working for the National Geographic Society or the Audobon Society. "I just love the natural world," he said. "What I want to do after high school is do more learning about what I love."

Donovan is working with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (RIDE) to create an environmental literacy plan for other public schools to adopt.

Deborah Gist, director of RIDE, endorses the environmental-interdisciplinary education model, "because students really respond to it."

In recent years, this wholistic teaching approach has gained popularity at other school districts, such as Smithfield and Foster-Glocester, and at several charter schools.

The Compass School in Kingston was founded on a portion of a farm in 2002. The setting has proved ideal for learning about sustainability and social responsibility. The school now owns the former farm and has grown to 165 students in grades K-8. Parents play an active role in the eduction process, which relies heavily on self-assessment and accountability. A waiting list of more than 200 attests to the popularity of the program.

Students learn about many of the "green" basics, such as recycling and composting, but also grow organic food, practice nature journaling, and study weather and tree care.

"They learn the whole food cycle, where it comes from and how to eat it," said school director Allen Zipke. Environmental studies is "part of the mission of why we are here," he said.

The Greene School in West Greenwich also was founded on environmental stewardship, as well as project-based studies.

"My feeling is if we are not teaching global environmental concepts then what's our future going to look like?" said head of school Deanna Duncan.

In its second year, the Greene School teaches 126 students in grades 9-11. The curriculum has three main fouces: global issues and systems; the outdoors; and community service. When they get to the real world, we want our students to have a strong ethic to participate, Duncan said.

"We just try to give them the opportunity to act locally," Duncan said. "Civic responsibility is a thread in our curriculum and that includes being an environmental steward."

The MET School, even before it announced a new ultra-green building at its East Bay campus in Newport, made a strong environmental commitment in its internships with Newport's recycling program, Salve Regina University and environmental groups such as the Aquidneck Land Trust and Bike Newport. The school's environmental club is one of the most active in the state for its outreach. 

This fall, the MET will be launching a new project-based program that focuses on sustainability, environmental science and environmental policy.

"It's a whole new realm of learning," said Taylor Rock, a teaching specialist and coordinator of the MET's student green team. "Our students actively get out there and see the influence they have in the real world."