Eighth graders take the lead on campus environmental change

Winters Middle School eighth-grade students fill buckets from a pile of mulched soil for new garden beds which will bring the proposed pollinator garden to life and be used to grow food, including carrots, lettuce, kale and sugar snap peas. (Courtesy photo)

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Winters is on this little planet called Earth, and since the Earth is the only place humans call home, perhaps it’s in everyone’s best interest to take care of it. That’s why Winters Middle School (WMS) teacher Melanie Ellison is guiding her eighth graders in creating their own real-world, environmental protection efforts.

Ellison — who primarily teaches sixth-grade math — was asked by the WMS Principal Dawn Delorefice to take on a trimester-long elective class for eighth graders. She opted to do so, and was given the autonomy to propose the type of class she taught — thus the eighth-grade environmental education class was born, with Delorefice’s nod of approval.

This environmental class isn’t some random choice of Ellison’s, however, as it was derived from her background as a Campus Arborist at UC Davis for 13 years. Ellison has her Bachelor’s degree of Forestry from the University of Toronto, and a Master’s degree in Entomology from UC Davis.

“I don’t want to start heavy, talking about climate change. We start off with developing an appreciation and curiosity for nature through two weeks of nature journaling where we’ll go outside, illustrate aspects of nature and make detailed observations. After that, we move on to developing an understanding of natural systems and figuring out how nature works. So, I’ll have students watch little documentaries and reflect on them,” said Ellison. “The last half of the trimester is focused on a major project. At the end point of this class last year, I had a couple of brave groups go up in front of the school board and give a presentation of their research project and project proposal. This project is all about community engagement and communicating their ideas to the community and applying their knowledge to make a positive impact.”

The projects themselves take around a month and a half to complete and require student groups to develop their ideas, create a realistic budget, a timeline for them, and focus it all on something that can be carried out at WMS. When it’s all said and done, the groups will have created a comprehensive, environmental solution proposal to bring to the school board or to submit to ‘Caring for our Watersheds’ an organization that awards funding to projects like these.

“It’s all student-driven and all the ideas come from their great minds. Last trimester we had a student propose we install more solar panels on campus and where they would go. Another group proposed we install three owl boxes on the campus to attract bird predators, not only to help support the native owl population but keep the local food web in check and the rodent population down,” said Ellison. “Another group wanted to support the pollinator population here and proposed planting a pollinator garden. Alongside them was a group who noticed there wasn’t a recycling program at our school and worked out a plan to have recycling bins put in the school.”

Winters Middle School eighth-grade student Cole Jordling pours mulched soil into a garden bed. (Courtesy photo)

Although this is the first year of this class implementation, it’s already making a positive impact on the community and bolstering the students’ belief in their ability to enact environmental change. Beyond the proposal creation, Ellison’s classes also go on field trips which have taken them out to the Yolo County Landfill. Sure the place is a dump, however, it’s also a reality check for the students to see where all their waste goes and the exhaustive efforts landfill workers put into disposing of it.

“I went to the landfill and recycling plant when I was younger and it was eye-opening because until you see it and have that experience, you don’t think about where your trash goes after you throw it in the bin,” said Ellison. “We’re going to do that trip each trimester and it’s one of the things I’m focusing on this trimester is how we can reduce our waste. Like, recycling is okay, but reducing our overall waste is better.”

Taking action
Ellison said last trimester, students Alexys Penunuri and Bryan Montes proposed the installation of the pollinator garden. For the second trimester, new students who rotated into the class took action to begin installing new garden beds and filling them with soil, which will bring the proposed pollinator garden to reality. The garden beds will also be used to grow food. Ellison said so far they’ve planted carrots, lettuce, kale and sugar snap peas.

Students also took action to spread mulch around the campus landscape so the soil would reap the benefits.

“In class, we discussed the benefits of mulch for water conservation, weed suppression, soil amendment, and beautification,” Ellison said. “The school district provided the mulch and our class provided the labor. It’s been a great team effort for the benefit of our environment and our learning.”

With the class inspiring more environmental actions each trimester, one can be hopeful that nature in and around Winters will continue to thrive.

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