Author: O'Connor, Mary Pat
Date published: April 1, 2010
Working with environmental attorneys, rafting down a river, meeting with the staffs of members of the United States Congress and picking up cigarette butts are all activities that happen in the ecology class of Mary Pat O'Connor at Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. Students in the ecology class have the benefit of learning under O'Connor, an Archdiocese of Indianapolis Saint Theodora Excellence in Education Award Winner and a major writer of the new standards for the state of Indiana's environmental science course.
The students in O'Connor's class are the beneficiaries of project-based learning. They select a project that is important to their neighborhood or school and work together to find practical solutions. This approach has lead to success for Ritter graduates who later study ecology or other sciences in college and to a more environmentally friendly school and neighborhood.
Project-based learning has provided students with many opportunities to impact positively their fellow students and the faculty and staff. For example, through student efforts, Cardinal Ritter High School investigated and invested in green construction techniques when designing and building their new chapel. The result is a beautiful chapel that is friendly to the environment and to the site on which it was built.
By engaging students in this rigorous course of study based on projects in and around the school and neighborhood, Cardinal Ritter has become a leader in ecological teaching and learning.
The class began when O'Connor discovered that her students did not have a good understanding of ecology after completing the school's biology course. Test results indicated that the students had not developed the knowledge base or skills about ecology that were desired by the school. The teacher was not surprised, because the number of biology objectives did not leave ample time for studying ecology and environmental science issues.
O'Connor wanted to create a class that would allow students to have an opportunity to research problems that they encountered and to find solutions for those issues. She wanted a class that was related directly to the students' world. She had a vision that the students would present their research to an audience that would be responsible for the problem or who might be able to assist in implementing the recommendations to improve the situation. Students in the ecology class not only would learn to research and develop solutions for environmental issues, they also would develop the competencies needed to present evidence and to persuade people to take action. O'Connor wanted to create a course that would not require a textbook, but would necessitate the utilization of critical thinking, exceptional communication skills and cooperative learning, abilities that will be in demand in the 21st century. The ecology class meets those objectives and promotes strong student learning and engagement. The subject matter is challenging and students report that they are well prepared for college after participating in this class.
One of the first projects the students selected was learning about wetlands and how thev can be reestablished. A portion of the property adjacent to the school flooded year after year and the students wondered if it could be restored as a wetland. They met with environmental law experts and soil specialists to learn what is needed for an area to be a wetland and then worked to preserve the area as a wetland by introducing native plants back into the locale and restoring it to its original state. They kept records of the biodiversity of the vegetation that successfully took root. Students monitored the wildlife that visited the area and collected data to help facilitate future steps to ensure the complete reinstallation of the locale.
While the class project initially was successful and the students learned a great deal about wetlands, implementation of the long-range plan has remained a work in process. The students learned that they needed to educate the area's neighbors so that they would not disturb the site. They also learned that some of the plantings were not as successful as their research indicated they would be, so the restoration of the wetland has become an ongoing learning experience that weaves science, building relationships and perseverance into one lesson. Data collected by the students on particular plants and animals has assisted the students in making new decisions about what they should do next to sustain their efforts. By not having total success, the students learned more about the challenges that life often presents.
Tackling Small Issues That Create Big Problems
When studying the impact of litter on the environment, students tackled a "small" issue that creates big problems. Students in the ecology class began by picking up cigarette butts and in a few days they had collected more than 40 pounds of cigarette butts. The class recognized that people did not realize that the little stubs of cigarettes could cause issues with drinking water and could contaminate soil. The butts also can be harmful to animals and are unsightly. To combat the problem, students began approaching people and explaining to them that discarding their cigarette butts was causing harm.
By raising awareness, students have been able to reduce the amount of cigarette litter that was making its way into the city's drinking water. On return visits to these sites, students found businesses had placed receptacles for cigarette disposal by their doors instead of just allowing butts to be thrown on the ground. Mayor Greg Ballard recognized Cardinal Ritter students at the annual Great Indy Clean-up rally for their participation and success in this endeavor.
Ecology class members also have taken on the responsibility of teaching their peers about ecology. Students have explained the need to dispose of electronics in an environmentally correct manner and have sponsored drives encouraging other students to donate cell phones, computers, batteries and other electronics. The ecology students found a company that would take these items and recycle them. The students took this on as a service project to educate their school community about the need to reduce waste and landfill consumption.
Research practices include the use of the Internet, but the class also affords students the opportunity to meet with experts in the field. Guest speakers are numerous in this class. Students have met with environmental attorneys to learn how environmental law impacts the community and how to be advocates for a healthier environment. Students are able to meet with and learn from political leaders in Indiana, including Senator Evan Bayh's staff, about environmental topics, energy costs and the future of green technology in Indiana. While in Washington D. C, the students spoke at length with staffer members of Congressman Steve Buyer about the operation of coal plants in Indiana.
Active research is also a component of study. An example of this is the annual rafting trip down the White River, where students study the river and watch for changes in the wildlife living in and around it. Students enter data about the creeks and rivers into a state database. The data collected is used by experts to make policy recommendations to political leaders and to determine the health of the creeks and rivers in Indiana. Students are contributors to an improved ecological state and they realize that the work they are doing is important to the health of the not only the environment, but also to the people of Indiana.
Throughout the course, students are taught a deep respect for God's creation. O'Connor works to ensure that students are knowledgeable about how they can be good stewards of the environment and how they are implementing church teaching into their work. Students study the negative impact that environmental policy can have on individuals in various communities.
Throughout the course, students become aware of environmental racism - the practice of allowing pollution and unhealthy business practices in places where residents are less affluent. This new understanding and sensitivity to the impact that mistreatment of the environment can have on different demographic groups becomes discussion topics not only in ecology class, but also in theology classes.
Rigor, relevance, relationships and religion have formed the core of the ecology class at Cardinal Ritter High School. Students are engaged in the learning process and are proud of the work and the changes that they have made by being part of the class. They believe that they are actively involved in demonstrating the core of Catholic social teachings on caring for God's creation, participation in the community and the common good. Under the leadership of the school's administration and a dedicated teacher, Cardinal Ritter High School is leading the community to a greener future.
Mary Pat O'Connor has been a science teacher at Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, for 14 years. She is chair of the Science Department and teaches biology, AP biology, anatomy and physiology, and ecology. She is a winner of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis Saint Theodora Excellence in Education Award (firstname.lastname@example.org). Kathy Mears is assistant superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. She has been involved in Catholic education for more than 28 years and works with teachers in the archdiocese promoting differentiated instruction and brain-based learning practices (kmears@ archindy.org).