Western’s Environmental Studies Academy Starts Strong

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By Rebecca Schmitz

From left: Ava DiVita, Anna Dunn, Davis Greene, and James Keese measure evaporation rates.
From left: Ava DiVita, Anna Dunn, Davis Greene, and James Keese measure evaporation rates.

At the end of a long hallway at Western Albemarle High School, in a spacious, brightly-lit room, students hunched in groups over spinning globes, wet sponges dangling from a scale, and even a psychrometer (a thermometer that measures differences in atmospheric humidity, for those of us who have been out of the classroom for a while!). On a grassy lawn just outside the room another group analyzed wind speed—its direction and how to measure it. A few weeks ago these students were atop Afton Mountain, studying the mountain’s geography and topography compared to other ranges looming nearby.  These 24 freshmen are clearly passionate about the environment and science, and that passion has led them here, to Western’s Environmental Studies Academy (ESA), which began its inaugural year in August.

Adam Mulcahy, who taught animal studies and environmental science for six years at Western before becoming director of the program, said the goal of the ESA is not just to prepare students for success in environmental-themed careers, but to be good citizens.

“Regardless of what they do or where they go after graduation, they will have a better understanding of the earth and the natural world,” he said. “Our hope is that they become stewards for the environment and more involved in their communities.”  The program’s curriculum pulls in different elements of earth sciences, environmental sciences, and global issues.

The ESA was born two years ago when Western began researching ideas for its own specialized academy, which would be modeled after the Math, Engineering and Science Academy at Albemarle High School and the Health and Medical Sciences Academy at Monticello High School. A panel of teachers and principals came up with a list of options, which was then given to school stakeholders and the public for input. More than 500 people responded, and the Environ-mental Studies Academy was chosen.  “The support from the community and the parents has been fantastic,” Mulcahy said.  “There are so many people in this part of the county that have a progressive view of the environment.”

ESA Director Adam Mulcahy helps Wes Beard and Mason Ancona understand the coriolis effect.
ESA Director Adam Mulcahy helps Wes Beard and Mason Ancona understand the coriolis effect.

Students began submitting applications in December 2013. The review panel looked at more than just grades when choosing students for the program. Teacher recommendations and personal essays were key to identifying students who were enthusiastic about nature, science, and the environment.  Applications were submitted “blind,” so that gender, race and ethnicity were not known to the reviewers.  While the ratio of boys to girls is 2 to 1, Mulcahy is confident the number of girls in the program will grow. “I’m hoping the girls enrolled now will become advocates for the program.” This year’s incoming class had 24 students.  Next year, two groups of 25 freshmen will be admitted, and the program will grow from year to year.  Students who are accepted will spend all four years in the program.

Seventy-five percent of the ESA’s students are from the Western Albemarle district; the rest are from private schools or other districts within Albemarle County.  Students from outside Western must find their own transportation to school, but can be dropped off at the Western bus stop closest to their home. Once accepted into the program, they are considered students of Western and can participate in Western’s sports and extracurricular activities.

“These students had to really want to be here,” said Mulcahy, who is impressed with their dedication.  “They are brave—it takes courage and leap of faith for a 14-year-old to enter a school with a whole new group of students.  But they are fitting in wonderfully.”

Mulcahy said the biggest transition for this group of ninth graders is the shift in teaching philosophy. “We’re trying to get them to stop relying on adults as the only source of information. We want them to work with each other first. They are developing relationships not just as peers, but as colleagues.  They have to rely on each other and help each other succeed.”

The students engage in hands-on learning, rather than being lectured to by a teacher.  A typical day finds them in groups of four and five, moving around the room every 22 minutes to different “stations” designed to reinforce concepts covered in their nightly homework.  Right now, the students are studying weather, and at one station they perform an experiment using sponges to determine rates of evaporation.  A procedure list and sheet of questions wait for them at each station, and they analyze, discuss, and compare notes with each other until they understand the concept before them.

Mulcahy and Mark Posovsky, who has taught earth science at Western for 22 years, circulate around the room. They help the students by facilitating discussions, explaining complex topics, answering questions, and providing technical support. Both teachers are brimming with enthusiasm. Their deep love of and understanding of the subject matter is evident—and infectious. The students are engaged, inquisitive, and focused as they work together.

Performing experiments helps Graciyn Goldstein, Trent Phillips, Caroline Lund, and Frank Kennedy understand weather-related concepts.
Performing experiments helps Graciyn Goldstein, Trent Phillips, Caroline Lund, and Frank Kennedy understand weather-related concepts.

“This is way more interesting than regular science,” said student Emma Bittle. “I want to learn more about the world around us. I like this type of independent learning.” Will Teague agreed, “I like how hands-on it is and that we really get to test things.”

This group is well-rounded, and the list of sports and activities they participate in is long: football, softball, band, lacrosse, robotics club, chess, figure skating, fencing, cross country, and more.  Although they spend one-quarter of their day in ESA classes, it’s important to Mulcahy that they become full participants in the Western community. This goes for academics as well. He explained that the program was purposely named “Environmental Studies” instead of “Environmental Sciences” to allow students to blend in an understanding of other topics. For example, while studying geography, students might also examine the history and culture of different regions of the globe.

“We want to give kids a well-rounded understanding of how the environment impacts everything.  The teachers here have been great at integrating the ESA into other departments.”

The students are also sharing what they’ve learned. A recent field trip took them to a local park to help third-graders from Cale Elementary learn mapping skills through geocaching.

This year, participants in the program will take courses in earth science, geology, and world geography.  Next year, they will take biology, ecology, and botany.  Year three will focus on environmental chemistry and environmental science.  In their senior year, students will choose an area they are particularly interested in for an independent project, and will intern or job shadow in their chosen area of study.

More projects are in the works. Although the ESA is funded through the approved county budget, it also receives grants. A recent $10,000 grant from Verizon will allow students to develop and build solar panels for a greenhouse they’ll build next year.

A glance around the ESA’s facilities revealed a group of students and teachers motivated to learn and happy to be doing something they love. “This is something different from the classes we usually take,” said student Ty Huneycutt.  “I wanted to be there at the beginning of the program—I wanted to be a part of something new.”

For rising ninth-graders interested in applying to the ESA, all three Albemarle County academy web sites will have a link to a common application that goes live in the first week of December.

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