Almanac

Cover Story - May 20, 2009

Which school is cool?

In an era of global warming, two local high schools take markedly different roads to environmental learning

by Dave Boyce

If plans for a green economy in the United States need a champion, President Barack Obama will probably do until someone better comes along.

His stated vision for a revived and updated U.S. manufacturing sector includes domestic production of a million electric cars and the batteries to run them, increased reliability on renewable sources of electricity, and millions of new green jobs.

If a green economy is the next big thing, when will the next champion come forward? He or she may be in high school, in the generation about to inherit a world in which, as we continue to burn fossil fuels, the atmospheric concentration of ancient carbon dioxide continues its steady upward climb. There's talk of such greenhouse gases approaching dangerous levels within a decade or two, with unpredictable effects on the climate.

The two comprehensive public high schools in The Almanac's circulation area Menlo-Atherton and Woodside are taking very different approaches to what is likely to be the defining issue of their students' lives.

Relevancy an issue

Menlo-Atherton High School's green curriculum, to the extent that there is one, consists of one course that specifically addresses environmental issues Environmental Analysis Through Chemistry.

This course is the brainchild of science teacher Lance Powell, who several years ago repackaged a chemistry course to meet University of California lab-science standards. The course is part of M-A's Academy program, a school-within-a-school designed for students who may need additional help to reach their potential and prepare for college. Academy classes are open to all.

To add relevancy to the students' analyses of neighborhood soil and water samples from San Francisquito Creek, Mr. Powell teamed up with the Academy history class and requires students to include a section on neighborhood history in their reports.

"I think linking everything to where they live brought out the relevancy piece," he said.

Mr. Powell's class is "exactly the kind of education most people want" in that it's interesting and relevant science about how toxics are poisoning the planet, M-A parent Kay O'Neill said in an interview. "We need to make this part of the culture at M-A, top to bottom."

Ms. O'Neill had aired those views at an earlier community meeting in Menlo Park with Assistant Superintendent James Lianides of the Sequoia Union High School District.

"The students at Menlo-Atherton High School are screaming for environmental science," Ms. O'Neill said at the time. "It's not just sort of a trendy thing to be green. Their careers will probably be very related to green (technology)."

Asked via e-mail if there was, indeed, "screaming" for environmental science going on at M-A, student body co-president Anna Murveit said that some students, herself included, had tried to make a case in 2007-08 for environmental science. Students had a choice, she said, of adding one science class to the curriculum; she voted for environmental science, but the majority voted for astronomy.

Anna, now a senior, led the school's environment committee as a junior. Asked what letter grade she would give M-A students for their environmental consciousness, she replied: "C-minus."

"I think they are informed about what global warming is, but don't understand the urgency or the real crisis that we are experiencing," she said. "Environmental movements on the M-A campus are only two years old, so I guess these things take time."

This year's environment committee tried to raise consciousness about what the school is not recycling by piling bagged garbage on the M-A green during Earth Week in April. Assistant Superintendent Lianides told The Almanac that he's actively engaged in establishing comprehensive recycling and composting practices for all the Sequoia district's campuses.

Students as teachers

Come September, Principal Matthew Zito said, M-A will inaugurate a "cutting edge" green curriculum from Stanford University: over five class periods, M-A sophomores and juniors, trained by Stanford graduate students, will talk to M-A freshmen about food, transportation and energy efficiency in the context of climate change.

Unlike an environmental science elective course, Mr. Zito said, this program does not rely on an individual teacher and widens student exposure to the issues.

The program is at M-A through the efforts of M-A parent and former Stanford behavioral psychology researcher June Flora, Mr. Zito said.

The program has a dual purpose, Ms. Flora said in an interview: informing kids about climate change and seeing whether the lessons result in behavior changes. Stanford graduate students will be present as observers, she said.

Among the hands-on activities: kids competing in a relay to be the quickest to fill a clothes line with clothes.

The program comes to M-A none too soon for Ms. O'Neill, the M-A parent and a former practicing psychologist. Kids are told of the need to lower CO2 footprints, "but then we don't give them the education to solve that problem," she said. "I find that to be psychologically damaging."

They need some upsides, she said, such as getting ready for a green economy: "Get their skills and training lined up in that direction."

In an interview, Principal Zito said M-A's science teachers are "trying to tie (environmental) things into real world examples."

Why not rigorous environmental science at M-A? A school has choices in its electives, said Francisca Miranda, assistant superintendent for curriculums for the Sequoia district. "It depends," she said, "on teacher preparation and teacher awareness and teacher willingness to teach a course like this."

Planting stuff, eating it

That preparation, awareness and willingness can be found on the staff of Woodside High, where Ann Akey teaches regular and advanced-placement (AP) environmental science since 2000.

Field trips are a regular class feature, as are guest speakers from facilities such as the wastewater treatment plant in Redwood City, the San Mateo County recycling program, and the Jasper Ridge biological preserve at Stanford University, Ms. Akey said. For hands-on creek activities, the class uses the stream that runs behind Woodside Elementary School.

The two-semester AP class looks at population, Earth science, ecology (the phenomenon of life), agriculture, biodiversity and land use. Among the lab exercises: mold growth to illustrate population issues, competition among plants, and sustainable food production, including a look at genetically modified organisms.

Woodside High's regular environmental science class includes work in a organic kitchen garden just outside the classroom door.

Senior Marsden Sheehan of Redwood City said he enrolled on his counselor's advice and enjoys the hands-on work. "You actually get to plant stuff and eat it," he said.

Has the class changed his views? "I was not very informed about the state of the environment until I took this class," he said. "I didn't know that everything was as bad as it is."

He now rides the bus more, he said, adding that if he ever owns a home, it will probably have a garden. "I don't want (climate change) to get worse," he said. "If it doesn't start to reverse, then we should slow it down."

A larger garden is planned for an undeveloped acre of partially shaded grassland at the southwest corner of the campus. With funding from a $75,000 local donation, the garden may eventually have a greenhouse, a tool shed and, thanks to Palo Alto-based Acterra, native plants and sting-less bees, said teacher Josh Rubin, a math teacher who is organizing the effort.

"It's necessary for kids to know how to be outside and relax" and not just sit in the classroom and read, Mr. Rubin said. "It's so much more natural for us to be in this setting."

In the fall, Woodside inaugurates the Green and Clean Academy, funded by a state grant and focused on the environment and related jobs, particularly those that involve the efficient use of energy and water, Principal David Reilly said.

Redwood City freshman and surfer Eric Cissna is enrolled. "I love the environment. I'd really like to help it," he told The Almanac. "It's getting worse and worse and to be a part of the solution is great."

Observed freshman John McKee, another Redwood City enrollee: "I think the environment is getting really messed up and I hope we can learn about it and do something about it."

Asked about Mr. Obama and his green initiatives, Eric described him as the first president to seriously address climate change.

Ms. Akey, when asked to grade Woodside High on its environmental consciousness, replied, "B/B-minus," then added: "There is certainly much room for improvement, so certainly not an A, but there is interest on the part of many, many students and staff."

Greener is better

Some 100 students from The Almanac's circulation area attend Summit Preparatory Charter High School, where every senior takes AP environmental science, Executive Director Todd Dickson said in an e-mail.

"We decided on this senior (environmental) science four years ago, as we felt it was the most relevant and appropriate course for all students to take, and that it was the perfect course to help us best meet our mission of developing thoughtful, contributing members of society," Mr. Dickson said.

What's happening at your school?

This story refers to environmental teaching at the two comprehensive public high schools in The Almanac's circulation area. If you want to tell us about such instruction at other schools in this area, please post the information on TheAlmanacOnline.com. On the home page, under the Town Square heading, click on the link, "Post Your Own News or Opinion."

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