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Taking environmental approach to science

Jack Barnwell
jbarnwell@tahoedailytribune.com
Tahoe Valley Elementary third-grader Anastasia Montoya takes some samples of a pine tree at the Tallac Historic Site on Monday as part of a science field trip.
Jack Barnwell / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

A group of Tahoe Valley Elementary third-graders scrambled around the Tallac Historic Site on Monday, learning how to identify different plant species and gaining new insight into the Tahoe Basin environment.

A second group of third-graders, this time from the Lake Tahoe Environmental Magnet School in Meyers, performed the same field trip Tuesday.

The field trips are one component of an extensive environmental and science program, according to Beth Quandt, Lake Tahoe Unified School District’s science outreach coordinator.

“Basically what we’re trying to do is get kids outside connecting with their environments in new and different ways,” Quandt said.

Most of the programs are coordinated or scheduled by South Tahoe Environmental Education Coalition (STEEC), a collaborative of more than 20 organizations.

Quandt said STEEC formed eight years ago and meets once a month to coordinate activities.

“The reason we did that was because we had a common goal of environmental education,” Quandt said.

Evolution of program

She said the effort has been well received by teachers, students and the community, and has grown over the years.

“When we first started it was in classrooms and then we decided to bring it outside,” Quandt said.

Grants made it possible to open it up beyond the classrooms.

“The first year we had it, we had a few teachers who were willing to have us come into their classrooms and it spread by word of mouth,” Quandt said. “More and more teachers wanted it and we decided we needed to expand it outdoors because we live in this great place.”

Several different programs take different approaches with the same goal of exposing students to environmental science lessons, especially those applicable to the Lake Tahoe basin.

The Tallac Historic Site field trips, designed for third- and fourth-graders, include segments called “Trees are Terrific,” “Ways of the Washoe,” and “Founding Families,” all of which expose students to cultural, historical and environmental elements.

“Third- and fourth-graders study Tahoe history and California history so it fits right in with their standards,” Quandt said.

The elementary schools have their own gardens or greenhouses, or are in the plans for building one. Bijou Community School’s second-grade classes have been working with the League to Save Lake Tahoe on its native species garden as part of a BMP grant, while Lake Tahoe Magnet Elementary plans to design its own. Quandt said Tahoe Valley Elementary has had a greenhouse for a few years.

At the high school level, ninth through 12th grade students can participate in the Tahoe Basin Watershed Education Summit, an overnight field trip experience.

“The students learn different protocols for collecting real data on projects that the Forest Service or other agency is doing,” Quandt said. It usually revolves around what kind of actual project is underway at the time.

“Not only do the students get to see hands-on experience, but they get to see professionals who are working in the environmental or scientific fields,” Quandt said.

Lessons are designed to move with the students.

“Each year we try to build on from the previous year,” Quandt said.

She added upcoming next-generation science standards plays in well with the California Common Core standards that have replaced previous testing standards.

Pilot school

Like any scientific approach, new lessons are test piloted before heading out to the other schools.

Lake Tahoe Magnet Elementary acts as the proving ground, according to Principal Joel Dameral.

“One of our goals is to pilot these programs and then disperse them out to the other schools so that they basically have the same opportunities as we do,” Dameral said on May 29.

Dameral, like Quandt, said the Common Core approach the district takes through its one-to-one technology standard allows students to actively update and refine assignments without having to resubmit draft after draft.

The magnet school is considered LTUSD’s “environmental sciences” school.

Quandt, who works from the magnet school, said she then writes grants to fund the projects.

She added that the technology has its advantages in citizen scientist applications, which the school district also conducts. Eventually, LTUSD hopes to update its data so it can partner with other schools around the lake.

The approach appears to work with the students as well.

“It’s pretty interesting,” said Tahoe Valley third-grader Maylia Thurber on Monday as she was making a rubbing of a plant. “I’ve never been in a field trip to where you get to learn about the outdoors.”


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