RCHS’s project-based environment

Get out much? In Rappahannock, it’s part of the curriculum.

“Project-based learning” may be a new buzzword in the education community, but Rappahannock County High School’s environmental science is ahead of the curve, and has been using PBL techniques for years.

“It’s not new here,” high school principal Michael Tupper explained. “Our CTE [Career in Technical Education] classes have always used project-based learning. It’s just going into the general coursework now.”

PBL is a technique or process in which students become actively involved in their learning, investigating key concepts of interest related to academic coursework and becoming challenged by complex questions related to their investigation.

Environmental science students (from left) Samantha Keys, Hope Carr and Autumn King take measurements in Cliff Miller’s Sperryville stream.
Environmental science students (from left) Samantha Keys, Hope Carr and Autumn King take measurements in Cliff Miller’s Sperryville stream. Courtesy photo

Essentially that means students get a choice of what to focus their studies on, explained Beth Gall, who has taught earth science, environmental science and horticulture for the past 30 years. Gall helped start the class back in 2002, and recently handed over the reins to Karen Sanborn.

Back then, the school system was in need of another science elective for students to take, Gall and Tupper explained. The high school’s graduation requirements had changed and required four science credits.

At the time, RCHS offered physics, biology, chemistry and Sanborn’s own earth science class. It needed, Gall said, a fifth science class that the general student population could take. Physics, Gall added, was a very intensive course that didn’t necessarily appeal to all students.

Thus the environmental science class was born.

What sets it apart from the high school’s other offerings, Gall said, are its “extended classroom opportunities.”

“You might call them field trips,” Gall laughed.

Multiple people in the community have stepped up over the years and graciously offered their properties for use in the class. Students take yearly excursions to the Sperryville and Washington wastewater treatment plants, as well as the plant in Warrenton.

“We used to go the landfill too,” Gall added.

The wastewater plants aren’t the only stops, however. Bill and Mary Frances Fannon have offered up their pond in Laurel Mills, and Cliff Miller lent out his stream in Sperryville. But the most generous donation might belong to John and Judy Tole.

In the program’s early years, the Toles donated an entire hectare — just under 2.5 acres — for the students’ continued use. In combination with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, which has divided the Woodville tract into a surveyed grid, students have undertaken many research projects on the property.

“We’ve done all kinds of experiments there,” Gall explained. “There are just tons of possibilities,” including studying the soil and trying to track how many wild animals pass through a given portion of the property.

“We tried everything for that one,” Gall laughed. “A dog wound up taking our bait.”

Students even presented their findings at SCBI one year, Gall said. Some of the class’ lesson plans were also developed in conjunction with the institute.

The trips to Woodville are extremely popular among the students, Gall added. She said she’s had several former students ask if they can go back and conduct another experiment.

Both Gall and Sanborn added that they are extremely grateful for the community’s generosity — without which, parts of the class would be completely unavailable.

Though it’s Sanborn’s first year teaching environmental science, she has taught eighth-grade physical science at for the past 15 years.

“Environmental science has always been a rich, hands-on, investigative course,” Sanborn said, “so I stress to my students that they will need to take the lead in demonstrating what they learn because we are all learning this together for the first time.”

While Sanborn admits she’s “learning as I go,” she’s kept the same basic structure of the class, including an emphasis on projects and presentations in lieu of written tests.

“For each chapter, instead of a test, I’m giving the students the choice to demonstrate, with some type of exhibit or project, what they have learned in that chapter,” Sanborn said. “It gives them the freedom to demonstrate and share what they have learned. It seems to be more fun this way, rather than taking just another test.”

Those projects differ year-to-year, Sanborn explained, as students choose to explore different — often unique — aspects of environmental science.

“Students are used to being led to the right answer,” Sanborn said, “but when they start to advocate, promote or direct their own learning, they take ownership of the material, and true learning takes place.”