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Dana Hills students became educators for a day, teaching Kinoshita fourth-graders practical backyard skills

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By Andrea Papagianis

Twenty-five fourth graders sit cross-legged, listening intently.

Clad in forest green and white polo shirts they gaze up at their peers—nearly 10 years their senior—sharing stories of high school, extracurricular activities and college applications, a future for these young scholars that isn’t too far away.

“They are on their road to college, and learning about college from a very young age can definitely influence their career path,” said Elisa Slee, Beckman@Science Coordinator, TOSA (teacher on special assignment) for Capistrano Unified School District.

Fostering these impromptu discussions between students is just one vision Slee has for the school district. When class sizes increased in CUSD, hands-on teaching in the district’s 36 elementary schools all but went by the wayside. And with the probability that classroom numbers are likely to rise, Slee said her mission is to get more children out of schoolrooms and into the community, building relationships and gaining practical, interactive experiences to carry them through life.

So, for the second year, Slee has brought together AP Environmental Science students from Dana Hills High School and fourth-graders from Kinoshita Elementary School for a joint backyard skills field trip to The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano.

Located right in their backyard—the center borders Kinoshita’s schoolyard—The Ecology Center’s campus brings textbooks to life and creates a living, breathing laboratory outside the confines of a classroom’s four walls.

“Getting out of the classroom is one of the most wonderful things we can do,” said Dolores Dang, the AP Environmental Science teacher at Dana Hills, who along with Slee, spearheaded the practical skills trip.

“Knowing that this is in their backyard and they can come here, any day, seven days a week, and show their parents, is a great opportunity to see what is going on in the community and to connect with the community.”

Kelsey Bragulla, a junior from Dana Hills, explores the composting process with students from Ms. Andre’s fourth-grade class.
Kelsey Bragulla, a junior from Dana Hills, explores the composting process with students from Ms. Andre’s fourth-grade class.

After being students all year, for one day, the juniors and seniors of Dang’s AP Environmental Science classes became teachers. Equipped with their colorful poster boards, research and environmental knowledge, the 60 high school students took over educating 150 fourth-graders.

Pulling from content learned throughout the school year the older scholars became experts in four hands-on practical skills. With prepared lesson plans, on topics from candle making to composting, the newly-established educators aimed to connect their pupils with their surrounding environment, their backyard.

“Each one of these skills they are learning is not only a practical skill, but each one of these practices is deeply connected with the environment,” said Meg Hiesinger, director of educational programs at The Ecology Center. “These are things that are useful because they connect us directly to the source of our materials.”

Dana Hills junior, Maddie McGrath, stands with three of her peers.

Holding a white sign, carrying a figure eight pattern, McGrath does a little jig, demonstrating for the 30 or so young scholars in front of her, the “waggle dance” move scout bees perform to communicate the direction of their food source. With giggles from her audience, and slight pokes from her comrades, McGrath’s spontaneous teaching method has gotten her point across.

“Every great teacher is flexible,” Slee said. “We have to think out-of-the-box.”

Supplied with new knowledge the young students scattered to stations set up under The Ecology Center’s lush trees. Manned by their older peers, the fourth-graders were guided through the steps necessary to craft homemade birthday candles. Stacked in single-file lines, with two six-inch-long strings tied to each other in hand, they took turns dipping string into hot beeswax, one, two, then up to eight times.

Their candles were complete, ready to take home to top their next birthday cake.

“Making the beeswax candles connects the kids to the living bees and gives them the ability to make things for their home, and make tools out of natural materials,” Hiesinger said.

Aside from the composting piles and chickens, the fourth-graders were able to take home their vegetable seedling-filled biodegradable flower pots made from toilet paper rolls and newspaper, and their hand-rolled clay-seed balls. Told by their peer teachers of the fragility of seeds, the students carefully rounded their clay time capsules and left them out to dry, for planting at home.  The ancient practice of extensive planting can now be observed by each student at home, as a rainy spring day will bring the seeds to life.

“Kids love science. I’ve never met a child that wasn’t a natural scientist, that wasn’t curious about his or her world,” said Slee.

After teaching kindergarten and first grade for years, Slee moved from her classroom and Kinoshita into a district-sized teaching space, intended to bring interactive science lessons to students throughout CUSD. As the district’s Beckman@Science Coordinator—a position funded by the nonprofit Beckman@Science Foundation, which has donated funds to all school districts in Orange County—Slee conducts teacher training to increase the use of hands-on inquiry-based science instruction across the district.

One way Slee said she hopes to bring more science to the classroom, is by getting young scholars out of it. With tools, like the “Grow Your Own” program at The Ecology Center, Slee said schools district-wide can utilize what is in their backyards to promote science-based learning.

“Parents want their kids to love to learn, and I’ve never seen kids in a hands-on science lab that aren’t involved or on the fringe, they are right there,” Slee said. “And it’s a great way to learn things and remember things.”

To find out more about The Ecology Center, 32701 Alipaz St., San Juan Capistrano, go to www.theecologycenter.org.

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