ST. LOUIS — On a recent Sunday afternoon, 22 Washington University students gathered to talk about a class project. It's an architecture class, but they weren't studying Buckminster Fuller or Frank Lloyd Wright. They don't even have class on the Washington University campus.
Architecture 490 sends its students instead to Patrick Henry Elementary downtown.
Taught by architecture professor Gay Lorberbaum, the class sends college students into the elementary school to teach sustainability to kids. Topics include teaching how plants grow, how recycling works and what the Patrick Henry students can do at home to help the environment.
College students are teaching second-graders about producers, consumers and decomposers in ecosystems. Sixth-graders are learning about alternative energy and nutrient cycles.
Students at the school have planted rose bushes and made compost bins next to the parking lot, and plans are afoot for an indoor greenhouse that would grow vegetables for a salad bar in the cafeteria. A group of Patrick Henry leaders has even approached the neighboring senior center about hosting a luncheon using fruits and vegetables grown on school grounds.
Lorberbaum started the new college course this semester after prolonged talks with Patrick Henry's principal about the school's needs. The class focuses only indirectly on architecture such are how buildings can maximize energy use. But Lorberbaum said its chief aim is to use environmental topics as a springboard to teaching science.
"Everything we're doing is to help kids see the wonders of the world," Lorberbaum said. "It's pretty wonderful."
Washington University students say the collaboration appeals to them on two fronts: allowing them to support the cause of environmentalism while also mentoring urban students.
But they say this isn't chiefly about activism. Rather, many say they view environmentalism as an outlet to teach science.
"I want to expose the kids to the science topics I would have loved to learn about when I was their age," said Devki Desai, a recent Wash U graduate who opted to take the course, even though she's not earning credit for the class.
The recent Sunday gathering was for planning, where students in the college course could talk about their lessons for the week.
Desai, who is working with sixth-graders, plotted out a lesson plan to have the students design houses that would use alternative energy on a vacant lot in St. Louis.
Claire Tourjee, a freshman majoring in psychology, discussed her goals for the kindergartners, which include teaching about how cereal is produced, or how car parts are made. "I want them to understand that everything comes from somewhere," she said. The next day at Patrick Henry, a group of Washington University students arrived at the school.
In the classroom where pop bottles on the windowsill sprout apple seedlings, Jake Perten and Emily Jacobson helped fifth-graders complete journals in which they track their progress through the semester. The class will be learning about how environmental change affects the planet and its cycles. The students used stickers and markers and crazy-edge scissors on construction paper and asked Perten questions.
"You go to Wash U.?" asked fifth-grader Charles Sanders.
"Yeah, you know where that is?" Perten responded
"Yeah, I want to go to school there," Charles said.
Downstairs, kindergartners drew pictures and talked about what is good for plants and what is good for people.
The third-graders counted trash cans and recycling bins to see if more are needed in the building. In the cafeteria, second-graders made a food web. Each student has a plant or animal, and then the students decide who eats whom.
"What do moose eat?" asked Washington U. student Emily Treece. "Could the bear eat the deer?"
Principal Esperansa Veal said not only have the activities made science more interesting for the students, they've also changed how the students behave.
"The kids have become extremely conscientious about light and waste," she said. "They appreciate things a lot more."
The Washington University students will visit Patrick Henry every Monday for the rest of the semester. Veal says she hopes the class becomes a staple and that the relationship with Washington University will continue.