Making Environmental Science Come Alive

Making Environmental Science Come Alive

From field work and gardening to funding and videos, Sylvia Rodriguez’s students do it all.

The 2008 Disney Planet Challenge? Grand Prize was awarded to a class of fifth-graders at Phoebe Hearst Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif. Their teacher, Sylvia Rodriguez, is a Sacramento County Teacher of the Year whose hands-on, project-based approach to science teaches kids about the environment, teamwork and good citizenship.

Describe your approach to teaching environmental science.

At the start of the school year, I tell my students about local environmental organizations as they’re coming up with project ideas, so they can get a sense of what’s going on in our community. I want them to understand that every little thing we do makes us part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

"They know that every time they come to school, they're working to meet a goal and to be heroes in something that matters to them."

How do you connect learning to the local environment?

I take them on field trips so they can appreciate and feel nature. Where we go depends on what funding we have. Sometimes we just walk around the city blocks near our school, or if I have parent drivers I take them to area nature centers. They keep nature journals by doing little science experiments. When I bring them back to the classroom they’re always excited to get started on a project and make a change.

What life lessons did your students learn from this process?

The most important lesson is that kids can make a difference—that they can be a force for positive change in their environment. And they learn that even though they’re young, people will listen to them because the things they care about are also important to a lot of other people. It’s all about empowerment.

What are some of the side benefits that you’ve seen come from your class environmental projects?

From a curricular perspective, the program extends beyond science, covering social studies, civics and writing. But the benefits even go beyond school. The students, and the parents too, develop a real sense of community. We went on a field trip over the summer just because somebody decided they wanted to learn more about the recycling station in Sacramento. They contacted everyone through email and we had 25 kids show up for a summer field trip. You have more of a family feel when you’re at school. And that’s really important because it makes it more comfortable to go to school.

What are some of the side benefits that you’ve seen come from your class environmental projects?

From a curricular perspective, the program extends beyond science, covering social studies, civics and writing. But the benefits even go beyond school. The students, and the parents too, develop a real sense of community. We went on a field trip over the summer just because somebody decided they wanted to learn more about the recycling station in Sacramento. They contacted everyone through email and we had 25 kids show up for a summer field trip. You have more of a family feel when you’re at school. And that’s really important because it makes it more comfortable to go to school.

Tell us about your project for last year’s Disney Planet Challenge.

We came up with a project to protect the American River watershed near us. To fund the project, the students wrote grant applications to local organizations, including our television station, which provided them with equipment to produce a video about their work. The students produced a watershed fair and play to teach the community about their work, and they planted a garden of native plants at our school. They also created a 70-page guide to the native plants of the watershed.

This project won the Grand Prize in the Disney Planet Challenge. Tell us about that.

It started with what we were told would be a safety assembly for the entire school, and we were all moaning and groaning until they announced that my class was the Grand Prize winner and that we were going to Disneyland, and then of course everybody was just screaming. We drove down in a luxury bus and were met by camera crews and Mickey Mouse. They built two days of ceremonies around us and our project. They had dancers and an orchestra for us, and we were even the stars in a parade.

How was your project recognized?

There was a dinner with representatives from the California Department of Education, California Environmental Protection Agency,U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Natural Resources Agency and California Department of Food & Agriculture. They interviewed the students about our class project and they had all read the students’ work, so they knew exactly what to ask them. We were all very excited because these important people knew about our work and they really cared about it and wanted to know more. All the kids got to come up to a microphone and speak about their work and answer questions. It just gave much more value and more of a voice to what they had done.


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