Denise Scribner’s ecology class at Eisenhower High School looks a little like work, a little like science class and a lot like recess.
“We spend a lot of time outside, because I feel like that equalizes people,” Scribner said, strolling past a patch of brightly blooming Maximilian sunflowers planted just outside her classroom.
“When you don’t have the barrier of those four classroom walls, you get to use some innovative teaching techniques. And besides, they don’t get outside a lot,” she said of her high school students. “You’ve got to get outside and breathe the air.”
The Goddard school recently was named one of America’s Top Ten Eco-Schools by the National Wildlife Federation, an honor recognizing the school’s outstanding commitment to wildlife protection, sustainability and environmental education. Scribner, who teaches biology, ecology and forensic science, was instrumental in landing the award and is a state finalist for the Presidential Award of Excellence in Math and Science Teaching.
Over the past few years, Eisenhower High has built an outdoor classroom, planted about 300 culturally significant plants and grasses and become a certified wildlife site and monarch butterfly way station. Last year, students recycled more than 15 tons of paper, 600,000 bottles and 300 pounds of aluminum cans.
“Before I took ecology, I thought it was going to be boring,” said Spencer Betts.
“You thought you’d pick up plastic bottles and hug trees?” the teacher said, raising her eyebrows.
“Yeah,” Betts said. “But once I got in, I was like, ‘OK, this is actually kind of fun. I can get into this.’ ”
On Friday, Betts and his classmates spent the first part of ecology class rolling green recycling carts through the school, collecting paper from boxes left outside classrooms and taking it to the pickup station outside Scribner’s class. Once that weekly chore was done, they grabbed carbon dioxide detectors and headed outside for some field work.
They took carbon dioxide levels from various locations – inside the school, outside the school, between branches of a nearby tree and in the parking lot, next to the tailpipe of Scribner’s idling car.
“Whoa! Ten thousand,” one student said as he watched the parts-per-million level rise near the car’s exhaust pipe. That’s compared to about 400 parts per million, the Earth’s average atmospheric level of carbon dioxide.
“So what does that tell you?” Scribner asked. “What do you think happens if 50 cars are out here with their engines on, waiting to pick people up?”
Lots and lots of CO2, the students answered. And more CO2 means accelerating climate change and global warming.
“Environmental issues are sometimes sensationalized, but we get down to the bare bones: It’s a science,” Scribner said. “It’s not just someone’s opinion. We actually do research projects and they look at real data.”
After collecting carbon dioxide measurements, the students gathered in a memorial garden near the outdoor wildlife area. Eisenhower students spend an average of 125 minutes a week in outdoor learning, a fact that weighed into its recent honor from the National Wildlife Federation.
“These are city kids,” Scribner said. “We had some funny stories when we were planting, because they didn’t know how to plant. I had shovels broken because they would jump on them.”
Wrapping up Friday’s lesson, Scribner quizzed students on what they had learned and how their activities and lifestyles might affect levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“You might say, ‘Oh, it’s too big a thing. I can’t help the planet.’ But what can you do, as a normal, everyday citizen?” she said. “Based on what you’ve learned today, what could you do to reduce CO2?”
“Ride my bike more,” one student offered.
“Carpool,” said another.
“Plant more trees.”
“Turn off your car when you’re waiting for someone.”
Junior Noah Merrell said he took ecology, a science elective, because he wanted to learn more about the environment.
“I wasn’t really well-educated about what’s wrong in the world today, but she’s taught me a lot about what I can do at home,” he said. “I started recycling at my house and stuff – just slow changes, but this class really helped me with that.”
Scribner spends much of her own time and money buying classroom supplies, researching environmental education initiatives and filling out the required paperwork. Her work earned Eisenhower High School a Green Ribbon Award in 2012, the Kansas Green School Award in 2014 and a Green Flag Award from the National Wildlife Federation this year – the highest achievement an Eco School can achieve.
“A lot of schools out there do programs like this, but I wish more would get into it,” she said.
“The environment’s kind of trendy now … but it’s something that, unless this generation does something, we’re at the tipping point. We might not have a place where people can live much into the future.”