Submitted by Cabot School students Billie Jean Rowe and Seth Herrick-Trombley, and teacher Julia Hewitt.
CABOT -- Tenth-grade students at Cabot School are putting their biology and chemistry studies to work, collaborating with local conservation organizations to build a public river access on the Winooski River in Plainfield, Vt. When completed, canoeists and kayakers will have a place to portage the Plainfield Dam, immediately downstream.
"This project has been in the works for a couple years with Friends of the Winooski and VT River Conservancy," said David Schilling, SEED program instructor. "I thought it would be a great fall project for the SEED biology and chemistry course that I co-teach with Ella Malamud. I've done conservation and trail projects with students before, but this one needed to be different. It needed to combine the course's academic objectives in a meaningful way and help students develop 21st century leadership and employability skills. Students couldn't simply do the dirty work; they needed to take leadership at all levels."
The SEED class, a collaboration between the Barre Technical Center and Cabot School, combines Barre's pre-tech format with Cabot's academic courses. In SEED, students participate in service learning and hands-on investigations that focus on better understanding the natural and human systems that surround us. The class serves as a portion of the high school's biology and physics courses.
In the river access project, students have assumed roles on three teams: landscaping, engineering and signage. In these groups, they are "empowered to act as professionals in various fields and to explore what it means to apply academic content in the real world," Schilling added. "They've also had the opportunity to work with experts in the field, including Noah Pollack, of the Vermont River Conservancy and Friends of the Winooski, who wrote the grant to build this project."
As part of the engineering team, sophomore Lyrica Stelle has been planning and creating a wood crib staircase. "We've been cutting in the stairs that go down to the water, so we had to dig six-feet by six-feet. To put in the staircase, we've had to drill or pound in rebar through the individual stairs; it must go four feet into the ground to hold each step in."
This staircase will provide critical river access. "There's a dam a little ways down the river, and there's no take out point for another couple of miles," sophomore Kyle Celley noted. "You really can't paddle the stretch of the river between Marshfield and Plainfield without needing to cut across private land. It's a really nice stretch, and we wanted people to be able to paddle that and to take out."
Sophomore Maya Morse described her charge as part of the signage team.
"Our job is to make a sign that looks really nice and tells people about the river access project and the natural history of the river." The signage team has also been challenged to incorporate information about environmental stewardship into their display.
The third committee, landscaping, has been improving the overgrown wheelchair accessible parking spot for the Co-op. Celley explained, "We're also going to have a small picnic table near the top of the stairs so people can buy something at the Co-op, then walk down and eat their lunch down by the river."
The unconventional structure of the biology/chemistry course allows for a balance between in-class study and fieldwork. During the first quarter, students have been in class for three days a week learning about wetlands biology, the chemical properties of water, and soil chemistry. "On the other two days," said Celley, "we go to the river and do hands-on work, incorporating what we learned at the beginning of the week."
"The chemistry really ties into our project," said Celley, "because we're going to test the soil to see how nutrient-rich it is. From there we can either figure out if we can use some natural fertilizers to change the chemical makeup of it or change the plants we want to use in our rain garden to match the soil that's there."
Students have noted that this is not an ordinary science class. "This course teaches about real-world applications of the material," said Morse. "There's a genuine audience for our work -- people who will benefit from the service project we're doing."
Stelle observed, "It really helps us understand how we can use our knowledge. In some classes, people ask when are we ever going to need this? In this class, the answer is obvious."
Not only are students finding relevance in their coursework, but they are also becoming more self-sufficient. "In a normal classroom, we rely heavily on the teacher," said Celley, "but in this course, we're doing the project ourselves. Most of the time, if we have a small problem that comes up, we can collaborate with each other and figure out a solution as opposed to how it works in a traditional classroom where you instantly ask the teacher. We're learning different social skills and discovering how to work together with our teammates to get a common goal accomplished. When faced with something we really can't figure out, then we can ask Noah or another one of the experts.
Science teacher Ella Malamud finds this approach promising. "I'm really, really excited about the projects we're involved in. Personally, I could sit and talk about chemistry and biology for hours and hours and hours. Invariably, in every class, there are some students who are as excited about sitting and discussing science as I am. Then there's everybody else who's not quite as excited about it, also just sitting in the classroom. They may work for a grade, but in a month will forget what they had supposedly learned. The idea here is that because they have this real-life experience, they will be able to retain this information -- a month later, two months later, hopefully for the rest of their lives."