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Inspiring Teacher Gets Going Green Down to a Science

March 31, 2017

Testing for phosphates, nitrates, dissolved oxygen and macro invertebrates in water is not normally high on the fun-factor scale for 7th graders. But mix in trust and an invitation to help change the future and middle schoolers race to get in position to help save the Earth.

“At the beginning of the year, I always ask the same question. Do you like science?” This query is posed by Charlene Shea, Gaiser Middle School life science teacher.  “And 99 percent of the kids say no!”  What might be a demoralizing response for some educators for Shea is simply a sign that the challenge is on.

“It’s about teaching kids — it doesn’t matter how old you are or how smart you are or how wealthy you are — everybody can impact the world around them.” And the impact, for Shea’s science students, has been profound.

Given the opportunity to design and implement their own science labs, students develop critical thinking skills. For example, during experiments about the effect of soil, water and light on plant growth, questions surface.  What if we grew them in sand?  What if we changed the light? What if we altered the water?  What if we redesigned the lab and ran the tests again, adjusting what we want to discover?  Shea’s response to such questions is most often, “Why not?”  Creative conjecturing leads to empowerment.

A believer in place-based education — a teaching approach that draws students and teachers into real-world learning by solving community problems — Shea always has her eyes peeled for tangible ways to nurture a scientific mindset. 

A perfect place-based learning opportunity presented itself right in Gaiser’s own backyard in 2009. The campus conjoins a wetland and a bioswale, which is a landscape feature designed to remove silt and pollution from runoff water.  Choked with blackberry bushes, nonnative invasive plants and garbage deposited by storm-water overspill, the wetland was a great candidate as a living laboratory.

Shea and fellow science teacher Meagan Graves were asked to tackle the project. They created collaborations that included students, staff, parents, community members and Washington State Environmental Studies graduate students. Plans for cleaning up and developing a new, healthy ecosystem in the drainage basin were set in motion. Gaiser Pond, as the wetland was named by the school community, became a planet-worthy example of stewardship, in and out of the classroom.

Starting with water quality testing efforts, additional protocols for monitoring the health of the drainage basin have been added each year since, and the number of students taking part has swelled. Snails, aquatic worms, sowbugs, casemakers and dragonfly nymphs have become data. Individual photo studies of the plants and seedlings serve as comparative information. And connections to other elements of the physical universe have emerged.

Shea and her students applied for Gaiser to become a Washington State Green School based on their work. This state-run program challenges schools to create greener, healthier school environments with the goal of building a sustainable future.  It’s a challenging six-level certification process, and acceptance into the program meant taking on the job of finding ways for Gaiser Middle School to reduce its carbon footprint.

Since 2010, Shea’s Honor Society classes have met the Green School challenge markers with their own impressive initiatives, including smart recycling and composting in the cafeteria, an air quality policy of no-idling of cars on school grounds, planting native drought-tolerant plants and instituting a new energy-saving pledge taken to heart by teachers and students alike. Each Honor Society class challenges the next year’s class to implement something new to continue and expand the school’s sustainability commitment. 

“I really believe that kids can be successful in whatever they’re pursuing when given the opportunity,” says Shea.  The seeds of trust are planted, and the mindset and tangible impacts grow.

With Shea’s high expectations and community support, Gaiser became the first middle school to reach level 6 in the Washington Green Schools Program. In 2016, the school was also awarded a coveted Green Ribbon School designation by the U.S. Department of Education.  Instead of using the Green Ribbon Schools award money to go to Washington, D.C., Gaiser students chose instead to put the money back into an initiative to reduce water bottle use by adding re-filling stations on school grounds. 

As far as we know, there’s no scientific protocol to measure Charlene Shea’s dedication to her students.  But if the variables of 7th grade enthusiasm for science, a school-wide sustainability pledge, and high school students returning with news they plan to study science in college are any measure, the planet owes her an enormous debt of gratitude.


Kathy Tuohey

Veteran producer Kathy Tuohey has been working in broadcast television for over 25 years. From daily segments to documentaries, her expertise includes arts programming, human interest stories and education specials. She is managing producer of the Golden Apple Awards, produces the Pathways to Excellence education series, and is a contributor to IN Close.  This Northwest native’s natural curiosity about the people and places of our region keeps her on the lookout for the next great story.

More stories by Kathy Tuohey

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Weird cause around the school alot of people disliked her since she came off as VERY rude