COLUMBIA — When 7-year-old Danielle Schneider plops down on a couch in her second-grade classroom at Lee Elementary School to discuss what she’s learned about the environment, it’s immediately clear she knows what she’s talking about.
“I love animals,” she said. "It’s important to keep the environment clean so that animals can live, and it can be a happy and beautiful place."
Danielle is so passionate about the environment that she initiated a cleanup in September during the Roots ’N Blues ’N BBQ Festival where she cleaned parks and a creek.
Danielle and her fellow students at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School are learning about much more than reading, writing and arithmetic. From the leaf artwork lining the school’s entryway to the recycling bags stored neatly in the corner of the classrooms, it’s clear that environmental education is something students and teachers take seriously.
In an effort to further environmental curriculum, the school has applied for a $1 million Children and Nature grant from the National Conservation Fund to develop a model “eco-school” that would expand Lee’s environmental curriculum.
Lee Principal Teresa VanDover said there are many changes she would like to make.
“We’d like to use 100-percent recyclable materials, and we’d like to do recycling on site to a greater degree than we’re able to right now,” VanDover said. “We also want to develop the south and the north area of the soccer field to be rain gardens.”
A rain garden is a planted depression designed to absorb rainwater that runs off roofs, driveways, walkways and compacted lawns. Rain gardens are becoming increasingly common at Columbia schools such as Rock Bridge High School and West Boulevard Elementary and serve as an additional filtering system to slow drainage into Hinkson Creek. They also help reduce pollution in streams by up to 30 percent.
VanDover would also like to create a butterfly garden for students to enjoy as well as a greenhouse where students could grow food.
Andre said the grant money would help answer several important questions posed by an increased focus on the environment: What are some things we can do for our building to make it more environmentally friendly? AWhat can we do in education to help children have a better understanding of the environment?”
Educators, including second-grade teacher Marilyn Andre, are capitalizing on the habitat unit taught in second grade, which provides an opportunity to increase children’s awareness of the environment.
Seven-year-old Joseph Jacobs, a student in Andre’s class, said the habitat lesson taught him a lot about the impact the environment has on humans and animals.
Andre’s class has taken trips to Rock Bridge Memorial State Park and the Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City.
Andre said the field trip to Rock Bridge was particularly enlightening.
“We spent an entire afternoon looking at the life cycle of a log and catching crawdads and critters in a stream and then releasing them back, and it was just, as one child said, it was the best day of his life,” she said. “Making sure that young children have experiences in the woods, experiences outdoors, is ever more important for today’s child.”
Joseph said the Rock Bridge trip taught him why trees are essential to our ecosystem.
“Trees are important because we need oxygen. ... They take away the bad stuff in the air and then shoot out the good stuff,” he said. “We have to keep them clean because if there’s no trees and no plants, there’s no oxygen, and then everything on this planet will die.”
Joseph said he now wants to be helpful on a regular basis and maybe begin by cleaning up trash in a neighbor’s yard.
Often it’s the simplest things that make the biggest impact, and at Lee, students have taken that approach to heart when it comes to recycling. Students recycle used cardboard boxes from items such as crayons and book orders.
Andre said such practices are not confined to Lee. “I think the emphasis on recycling can work in any school, in any classroom; the idea is very transportable.”
VanDover learned about the Children and Nature grant through a contact at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the successful launch of SEEDS, or Students, the Environment, and Endangered Species, with last year’s fifth graders.
“... We piloted it with our fifth-grade students, and it was phenomenally successful. We had endangered species brought to the school; they used some of the MU resources. It was very hands-on. Children were able to pet a bat, feel the skin of a sturgeon, be in the presence of a great horned owl, and so it was intriguing and engaging.”
VanDover then helped with a presentation to the local Fish and Wildlife office about the school’s success, and the organization invited VanDover’s school to apply for the Children and Nature grant.
Lee Elementary has asked the city of Columbia to partner in-kind on the grant application. That means the city would neither receive nor provide money, but the Public Works Department would donate staff time for the education.
The partnership wouldn’t be the first between Public Works and Lee. Public Works has worked informally with Lee and other Columbia Public Schools for the past several years to teach students the importance of clean water.
Mona Menezes, storm-water outreach educator for the city said the department has done three art projects at Lee Elementary.
“We wanted to create a positive message and address what kids can do to have cleaner water,” Menezes said. “We made storm-water posters, a storm-water collage, and the kids also designed decals similar to the ones on storm-water drains around town. All of their projects hung at the county building over the summer.”
Menezes said increasing kids’ understanding of the environment is essential. Teaching them basic knowledge, such as storm drains lead into streams and shouldn’t be polluted, has already made an impact, Menezes said.
“They won’t make those same mistakes.”
The Public Works Department has visited four or five schools so far this year, and Menezes said they would love to receive invitations to visit more.
VanDover said Lee is eager to continue its partnership with Public Works.
“We would like to work closely with them. They have an expertise that typically isn’t available at our schools. ... And we’d like for some of their time to be spent in direct teaching, not just consultation. And then our teachers will help to make those curriculum connections, so it’s really a team approach.”
VanDover recognizes the competition for the grants, but she said she is just grateful for the ideas the experience has afforded.
”There are 20 grants being awarded for 50 states, so it’s a long-shot, but it has really enabled us to grasp a vision about what we would do to support children and learning in connection to the world,” VanDover said.
Meanwhile, Lee students are working to make sure their little piece of the environment gets the attention it deserves.
Joseph is leading by example. “I was thinking I could clean up my backyard and see if there’s trash in my neighbors’ yards or my yard,” he said. “I’m going to start that tomorrow.”