By Mrs. Melanie Cutler         

Our environmental science program at AHS was unique and wonderful.

Recently, our Ninth Grade Environmental Education Program won the Massachusetts State Environmental Education Award (awarded on May 4, 2012). In the fall, our Cafeteria Composting and Recycling Program won the Massachusetts State Recycling Award. In addition to these programs, the AHS Sustainable Garden Project and the endangered turtle raise-and-release program were integral parts of our ninth-grade Environmental Science course and were partially staffed by ninth-grade Environmental Science student volunteers.

We Environmental Science teachers and students are very proud of the accomplishments we have made, and we are very upset that the ninth-grade Environmental Science program has been cut.  This program had run successfully for over 20 years. 

What made the program so great? 

Environmental Science was required for all ninth-graders, so students were able to apply this environmental background to all of their remaining courses at AHS.  The environment is an area of study that applies to all subjects and is very interdisciplinary.

Students applied their knowledge to real programs that benefitted the school and the Andover community, such as the Sustainable Garden Project, the classroom recycling program, the cafeteria recycling and composting program, and the endangered turtle raise-and-release program.

Community volunteers, such as Sustainable Andover volunteers, the Town Planner, the Town Plant and Facilities Department, and the AHS Custodial staff worked closely with students on class and independent projects.

Environmental Science students reported feeling empowered because they were not only learning the “bad news” about environmental science, but also working together to effect positive change in their school and town community.

 The ninth-grade environmental science course also allows students to explore potential interest in a career in the environmental sciences and as a lead-in to taking the Advanced Placement Environmental Science (APES) course as juniors or seniors. Over the past several years, many of those who took APES have scored high enough to be able to receive college credit for their work in the AP course! We also have had several students who are combining environmental themes in their college major, such as in Environmental Policy Development and Environmental Action.

Several independent projects and senior exhibition projects were sparked in Environmental Science classes, for example,  the solar panel projects, Biggest Loser project, townwide green schools data collection and analysis, composting project, and veggie car project. Next year, I also have six rising seniors interested in projects to run the marketing and economics of the AHS Farmer’s Market booth, reduce energy use in Andover town-owned buildings, and install a vertical garden, among others.   

 Why Environmental Science should be required for all students.

The Environmental Science course exemplifies the ideals presented in the Andover Public School’s Strategic Plan.  The plan includes experiential learning, project-based learning, interdisciplinary learning, critical thinking, 21st century skills, and service-based learning. Our Environmental Science course incorporated all of these innovative educational techniques. The course taught students to think critically, assess and analyze scientific data, and to write and speak clearly to communicate their research, experiences, and ideas. The course encouraged higher-level thought processes. Students did not simply read information in a textbook and spit it back on a test. They are asked to think critically about complex, global environmental issues and their solutions.  Students processed not only scientific information, but also social, legal, and economic issues that influence environmental issues and their solutions.

The course uses technology effectively.  This year, some of the Environmental Science teachers — Mollie Shenker, Josh Shenker, and I — developed Wiki pages (class websites) that allowed for more technological interactivity among students.  For example, in my class, students maintained an online Garden Journal to document, with photos and text, their progress, thoughts, and explanations related to their work in theSustainable Garden. In Mr. Shenker’s class, students use the wiki for group work and for online discussions outside of class. 

Because Environmental Science is a relatively new field, many students have not been exposed to the subject before ninth-grade.  It takes thorough exposure to this important subject in order for students to understand it enough to get excited about making a positive difference in their environment.  It is no secret that our global environment is in trouble in many ways.  This generation of students is left with the massive responsibility of remedying the most anthropogenic environmental damage the Earth has ever seen.  It is our responsibility as educators to equip this generation with the tools they need to address the myriad of environmental issues they will face in their lifetimes. This needs to be a generation of empowered, creative, critical thinkers, and active citizens.  The Environmental Science course incorporated all of those ideals.

Why offering Environmental Science as an elective is not the best option

There has been talk about making Environmental Science an elective in a few years so that the incoming freshmen who are not able to take Environmental Science next year may opt to take it in their junior or senior years. While this is a step in the right direction, the students who most need an environmental education are those students who are less likely to volunteer to take an environmental science elective.  People who tend to do the most environmental damage are often those who don’t care about the environment and are uneducated about how the decisions they make in their daily lives affect the planet.  By offering the course as an elective, we would be shirking our responsibility to educate all students in becoming caring and productive global citizens in the 21st century.  

Our current Environmental Science program is so amazing now because we have five to six teachers teaching the course and we, on our own time, collaborate with each other, share resources, bounce ideas back and forth, work on common assessments, analyze data, and work together to develop exciting lessons that engage all students with an emphasis on getting students out into their natural world.  Over the years, many students have told me that E-Sci is their favorite class because they get to go outside to the garden and for the Environmental Project or because they take care of the classroom animals.  (See the book Last Child in the Woods for many well-researched arguments on the importance of getting kids out into nature.)  If the course comes back as an elective, there will likely only be one or two teachers teaching the course. The larger collaborative atmosphere will be lost.  

Finally, the cut to the Environmental Science program is a huge blow to our psyches.  All of the Environmental Science teachers have spent countless hours of their own time working on the course.  Ms. Burch and Mr. Sousa spent hours before school, after school, on weekends, and in the summer caring for the classroom animals. Mr. Shenker spent his free time attending technology workshops to improve the technological aspects of the course. Ms. Johnson spends hours finding new multimedia resources to use in the classroom. Mrs. Shenker and I have spent countless hours away from our families working on Environmental Club activities and the classroom recycling, cafeteria composting, andSustainable Garden programs, both during the school year and in the summers.  Because we feel like this course was not valued enough to save, we are worried about putting in more time and effort to design a new course in the future that could be at risk of being cut again. Additionally, if we will be required to teach an extra course next year, we will have less time for all of these co-curricular activities that were once an integral part of the Environmental Science course. We are all devastated by the loss of this program that we have spent so much time on and are so passionate about.  It is a real loss for the whole AHS community.

What do Environmental Science teachers think about the argument that students need to improve their English abilities?

We fully agree that AHS students need more help with writing and composition skills.  We are very willing to do whatever we can to help with that. We are very disappointed that neither Science nor English teachers, parents nor students were consulted or asked for input before Dr. McGrath made her decision to cut the program.  After the decision was made, the science department brainstormed some ideas that could help solve the English problem without cutting Environmental Science. Because students did a tremendous amount of reading and writing in Environmental Science, we proposed the idea of an interdisciplinary course, co-taught by a science and English teacher, where student writing could be assessed by an English teacher and composition skills could be incorporated into the course. A parent suggested that AHS have a writing workshop where students could bring papers to be edited any time before, during, or after the school day. As a community, AHS students, parents, and teachers have a tremendous creative capacity and most would be willing to work together to solve problems creatively if given time to think about it and the opportunity to provide input.  If given the chance, we believe that we could come up with better ways to improve student writing without cutting our award-winning environmental science program.