Environmental science is hands-on in Lafayette schools 20100127-news-0101.jpg

Students with an interest in nature can attend environmentally themed classes from kindergarten through graduation in the Lafayette Parish School System’s environmental science academies.

The system has three schools of choice which focus on the environment, with environmental science academies at L. Leo Judice Elementary, Lafayette Middle and Northside High.

L. Leo Judice is a “wall-to-wall” school of choice without a zone, meaning that all children who attend the school have applied to participate in the program.

“Today children spend very little time outdoors; a large part of their day is spent in front of some type of screen with little interaction with others,” says lead teacher Paula Guidry. “Spending time outdoors increases children’s focus, observation skills, creativity, and appreciation for nature.”

Leo’s teachers use Montessori teaching methods in their classrooms, which generally means a more student-directed and hands-on approach to learning. By taking that learning outside, children also can learn to love nature and to respect the environment, Guidry says.

Leo has an outdoor classroom, a greenhouse and a garden. The students also run a recycling program, and each class has their own pet, which the children learn to care for. The vegetables grown in the school garden are used to feed the class pets, students and faculty.

“Our students get so excited when it is time to dig in and prepare the gardens for planting,” Guidry says.

“The gardens also give the students the chance to watch the life cycles of plants, butterflies, and other insects. Plants attract these visitors that are studied by the students and provide a number of math, language arts and science lessons for the classroom.”

Leo teachers use that interest the children have in the plants and animals to teach them other skills and subjects, Guidry adds.

“Our outdoor classroom provides opportunities for students to develop observation skills, visual spatial skills, mathematical thinking, creativity, and abstract thinking that are needed for success in the classroom,” Guidry explains. “By taking learning outdoors, teachers are able to make learning more meaningful and exciting for students as they integrate nature into all areas of the curriculum.”

Lafayette Middle School is home to the district’s oldest e-science program. The school has its own swamp, an outdoor classroom, a greenhouse, a butterfly dome, working solar panels and a worm farm. There is a menagerie with all sorts of animals, which are cared for by the students.

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Stacy Hess, LMS academy director, echoes Guidry’s comments about hands-on activities to keep kids engaged.

“Education today must provide students with real life connections in order to keep them actively involved in the learning process,” Hess says. “When teaching about environmental issues in our own backyards we are making learning relevant to their lives now and their lives in the future as adults.”

Academy students study renewable and non-renewable resources and recycling. They run the school’s recycling program. For the past four years, these students have planted cypress trees at Avery Island as part of a project to restore Louisiana black bear habitat. Academy students also study threats to the state’s coastal wetlands, and travel each summer to Grand Isle to plant black mangrove trees to fight coastal land loss.

Students also study global environmental issues and sustainability, overseeing the school’s worm farm, which turns mountains of shredded paper into an organic fertilizer know as “worm castings,” Hess says.

“We also teach about sustainable fishing practices and aquaculture because overfishing is a problem that not only effects our very own Gulf of Mexico but also the majority of our planet’s oceans,” Hess notes.

LMS hosts an annual Earth Day celebration that has become very popular because of the games and hands-on activities for kids and adults. This year’s event is set for May 1.

The system’s newest e-science program is at Northside. Director Chad Broussard says keeping kids engaged is especially important at the high school level.

“Core content means much more to students when they can apply their knowledge to the environment,” Broussard says. “Geometry in a text book is one thing. Geometry in nature, that brings it to a whole other level of understanding and retention.”

The academy tries to nurture students’ interest in the world around them, he says.

“Students today are not connected to the outdoors; they don’t feel comfortable exploring the unique landscapes and environmental features that have, for a long time, been a part of our unique heritage in south Louisiana,” Broussard says. “One of the biggest benefits is that our students begin posing questions about their environment and have all of the technology or lab equipment they need to conduct real scientific research.”

Academy students at Northside are working on a project to restore native prairie grasses. These students also run a school recycling program, and are planning a garden in their outdoor learning area. The students have their own weather alert system, and have been working with KATC’s Chris Paulsen to learn more about meteorology. They conduct their experiments in a state-of-the-art multimedia lab, and collect specimens in their outdoor classrooms.

Broussard argues that the environmental focus of the three academies has a positive impact beyond the children who attend those classes.

“Our community sees a direct benefit in environmental education, and community partners can gain ownership in our academy through research mentoring, sponsorship, internships, and guest lecturing,” Broussard says. “There is a distinct tangible reward for both the community and the students in that an improved environmental conscience ensures a protected quality of life for the community in the years to come.”

The application for slots in these programs for the 2010-11 school year is now open at www.lafayettechoice.com.

Angie Simoneaux is the LPSS marketing coordinator and a former beat reporter for the Acadiana bureau of The Advocate.

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