Kids enjoy outdoor education at environmentally driven Wake County school Robert Brittain. January 15, 2020.
Are you the parent of a pre-kindergarten-age child that loves to spend time exploring the great outdoors? If so, when pondering elementary school options, consider building on your child's love of nature by applying for enrollment at an environmentally-themed magnet school.

Based on curriculum input from a parent survey, two elementary schools in Wake County were awarded a federal grant to develop an environmental theme for its 2017-2018 school year.

Randi Jones, magnet coordinator at Millbrook Environmental Connections Magnet Elementary School, shared that the program is now in its third year and that with each passing year she and her team create new, hands-on learning experiences for their students.

"We use the natural world to make educational lessons and principles come to life," Jones explained. "Our students are still learning the core subjects of language arts, social studies, science and math. But they are doing so through the lens of the environment and the natural world."

ill McGowan, environmental connections integration specialist at MECME, added that the school's mission is to develop well-rounded, environmentally conscious citizens who want to take action on environmental issues. It also wants its students to understand the interaction between human behavior and the environment.

"That's why it's so important that our students make eco-connections throughout the school day," McGowan said. "From math to language arts, we work with our teachers to help them integrate the environmental theme throughout their lesson planning and their teaching. We use the environmental lens to spark intellectual curiosity among our students."

So, what does environmental learning look like in practice? Here is a peek at some of the learning fun that students experience at this environmentally-themed magnet school. As a part of a language arts lesson, students go outside, use their five senses to experience the physical environment and then write a poem based on that sensory experience. For a science lesson about air quality, students gather data from sensors and determine which areas of campus contain the highest and the lowest volume of airborne particulates. Then the students brainstorm ways to reduce high volume particulate concentrations, draft an action plan and implement the plan. At lunch, all students participate in a food waste composting program. During a math class, students travel outside to a garden bed and calculate the area, perimeter and volume of the garden bed. They then use this data to determine the amount of soil that they will need to fill the garden bed, and they verify their calculations by filling the bed with pre-measured soil. As part of an environmental impact class, students conduct a school-wide waste audit. They discover that the school is using an abundance of white paper, start an "every sheet counts" conservation campaign, encourage the reuse of white paper, and ultimately reduce the daily consumption of paper by 94 pounds through recycling, reuse and increased consciousness.

To help students explore a variety of subjects across the natural-world spectrum, environmental magnet schools also offer a wide selection of quarterly elective courses, featuring everything from geology and botany to garden design, and an up-close and personal study of the life of bees.

Throughout the environmental learning process, technology plays an important role. Each student is given access to either a tablet or a laptop. In addition, digital microscopes, a weather station and campus trail cameras are in frequent use.

To inject a bit of community into the learning process, outside speakers and community partners regularly visit the classrooms or lead campus excursions. Travel to local parks, museums and environmental data collection centers is also an integral part of the environmental magnet school playbook.

"The benefit of a school like MECME is that our students are able to go outdoors, observe, interact, experience hands-on learning, come back inside and be able to process those discoveries like scientists – all for the experience of learning and to better their education," Jones explained.

McGowan added, "Any child can benefit from this theme. We need environmentally minded people in the world. Regardless of whether our students become biologists, writers, artists or beekeepers, we need citizens who care for the environment."

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