Friday, June 22, 2012

Whitney Young Science Teacher Engages Students Through Biology

Todd Katz is a science teacher at Whitney Young Magnet High School.  Recently he sent me this report on the work he and his students are doing through service-learning.  It's a lengthy report but indicative of the amazing work students are doing through excellent adult facilitation and guidance.

Biology in my class is very different from biology in most other classes across the country. My teaching philosophy is to create leaders of our communities rather than followers, yes-men, or test takers. As a result of how I teach, students of my class leave empowered, proud, confident, and aware of their own social and ethical responsibility to themselves, their family, community, and their environment from a scientific standpoint. In addition, they conclude their freshman year with a sense that they are capable of doing anything they put their minds to.

This February marked the beginning of the second year of the Mycelia Project. The project's purpose is to allow students to identify ways in which they can either individually, or as a small group, make positive impacts on their community and environment by creating a more symbiotic relationship between the two. The guidance provided by me is minimal as to not stifle the student's own creativity or limit what they can or cannot accomplish.

The objective of the project was to include as many of the ten Mycelia pillars in their 15-week long project as possible. These pillars include ecology, food, water, energy, health, sustainability, waste, gardening, community, and education. The more pillars utilized within their project, the higher the maximum point value they could receive. For instance, completing six pillars could earn them a score of a B, but doing seven could earn them a higher score of a B+.  After 2,227.5 hours of work, here is what 99 freshman biology students were able to achieve.

To initiate their project ideas, they wrote and received $3,748 from Friends of Whitney Young Grants and Whole Kids Grants sponsored by Whole Foods. Additionally, they applied to other grants including Friends for Change and America's Global Youth Service. At the same time they raised $2,508 on their own through the sales of reusable tote bags and coupon books. As a result, they chose to donate $1,990 to local community non-for profits focusing on improving the environment.

Students worked to reduce our schools carbon emissions through ACE Biggest Loser: Energy Use contest in which ten classrooms outside of the science department worked to reduce energy consumption. Sunday June 17th, students will be participating in Climate Cycle; a 20 mile bicycle ride which will not only improve their health, but will also make Whitney Young eligible to receive a grant for 5 KW of solar panels for the school. Please support us at Whitney Young

Whitney Young (WY) students realized that they could work smarter by recruiting outside help. In fact, they recruited an additional 446 students from WY and another 671 students from 67 other schools to help in their community outreach endeavors, which spanned 61 of Chicago's neighborhoods.

Recognizing the struggles of individuals within our city, students helped our homeless and malnourished children. In total, students assisted 1367 homeless and cooked 170 meals from scratch and served another 554 meals for them. In addition, over 70 malnourished children will not go hungry for a year because of our students work with Feed My Hungry Children.

Students then put themselves to work doing 900 hours of real, hard-working, community service learning. This includes cleaning up 17 beaches, ten parks, four forest preserves, removing 978 invasive buckthorn trees, 846 honeysuckle vines, and nine trash bags full of garlic mustard. They collected litter from 13 communities including 1080 gallons of aluminum cans, and 37 bags of trash. Forty bags of clothes were picked up from a local neighborhood and donated to the Salvation Army. Older clothes not suitable for donation and destined for the waste stream were repurposed into 170 "rag bags" or cloth bags and donated to individuals at one of the four fashion shows. These shows exhibited ten dresses made by our students using up-cycled materials like candy wrappers, balloons, newspaper, seat belts, plastic bags, and other material typically discarded after a onetime use. In total, students up-cycled 398 items that otherwise would have become trash.

Students started, encouraged, and enhanced our schools recycling program as well as the program of two other schools. They started up ecology clubs at elementary schools that now meet on a regular basis. Additionally, they educated others about our schools greenhouse and its function. They created an amazing hydroponics system using zero energy to water plants year round and return excess water to be reused again. Whitney Young students also planted 1073 sq. ft. of gardens, built 743 sq. ft. of raised garden beds, eight vertical gardens for five schools, 34 mini-aquaponic systems, and 12 window gardens.

Some students took it upon themselves to actually grow their own gardens for other uses. Four young entrepreneurs established working relationships with The Publican restaurant by growing and selling organic microgreens and baby greens to them. Additionally they started their own backyard urban farm to provide fresh produce to community members within a food desert. Students also have learned the business and logistical side of growing, cultivating, and shipping of mint, rosemary, and chili peppers to John and Kira's Chocolates in Philadelphia.

According to feedback from my students, the single most disturbing comment heard from community members was a lack of awareness of the issues that surround our environment. So our students spoke up.  Students felt that the best way to continue to improve the quality of the environment around them was to educate others. As a result they taught at 67 schools, integrated technology to educate through the creation of 143 blog posts, 16 websites, a 25 minute documentary, an online magazine with ten articles on environmental issues, and a 60 page healthy cook book with 60 recipes geared towards high school students to make the foods for their friends and families. They also met with members of their community and state government including aldermen of three different wards and Congresswoman Sterns to get new laws in place to regularly educate our states architects about utilizing more green building practices in their designs.

Students also looked creatively to their online gaming community as an avenue to educate others. This was done through creating an educational map for interactive use on a gaming platform called Minecraft with over 100 downloads.

In total, students in the Mycelia Project spoke with 580 adults about their project and worked with 113 teachers from 63 schools throughout the city to teach 3255 children and young adults about ways in which they have made a positive impact on their community and environment.

I am very proud of the work my students have accomplished and the leadership they have demonstrated in completing this project. I believe these students can walk proud knowing that what they chose to accomplish in these past 15 weeks is far more than most kids and adults do in a year. But more importantly, they did it under their own leadership and responsibility.

A big thank you to Friends of Whitney Young for their financial help in supporting these students. And to Brew and Grow for their continued help and support teaching my kids and supplying us with our aquaponic needs. Lastly, congratulations to this freshman class for a great job helping the environment in our city!

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