Western’s Environmental Studies Academy Experiences Tremendous Growth

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By Rebecca Schmitz

ESA student Ava DiVita  samples macro-invertebrates to determine stream quality at South River.  (Photo: Adam Mulcahy)
ESA student Ava DiVita  samples macro-invertebrates to determine stream quality at South River.  (Photo: Adam Mulcahy)

Big changes are underway at Western Albemarle’s Environmental Studies Academy. Now in its second year, the specialized academy—which is Western’s equivalent to the Math, Engineering and Science Academy at Albemarle High School and the Health and Medical Sciences Academy at Monticello High School—is adding a new classroom and greenhouse. The pre-fab greenhouse is being built by Winandy Greenhouse Company in Indiana and will be delivered at the end of November. The new classroom, designed by VMDO Architects in Charlottesville and being built by Mathers Construction of Waynesboro, will be ready for students to occupy when they come back from winter break. The two structures will attach to each other and form an “L” shape jutting out from the existing ESA classroom.

The new space was part of the original plan for the ESA, which has doubled in size this year to 64 students. ESA Director Adam Mulcahy expects to add 40 to 50 students per year, for a total of 160-200 students when all four high school grades are represented. (Only freshmen were admitted the inaugural year, which means all four grades won’t be represented until the 2018-2019 school year.) Next year, 110 students, or 15 percent of the student body, are expected to enroll.

“We knew as we grew in strength we’d have to expand,” Mulcahy said. “We spent a lot of time discussing internally if there was any way to absorb the program into the school. But we didn’t have the internal space. Each of the other academies [at Albemarle and Monticello] has an extra wing to their program, and we don’t have the space internally to do that. We knew if enrollment grew as anticipated, we’d have to expand.”

“This was all supported and funded by the county and the School Board and the Board of Supervisors as a budget item. We are grateful for their support,” he added.

The roughly 1,000 extra square feet of classroom space will house this year’s sophomores and, in future years, juniors and seniors too. Freshmen—whose course of study focuses on the earth sciences, such as geography and geology—will remain in the current classroom. The new classroom will be about the same size and set-up as the current classroom, with flexible seating and ample space for students to work collaboratively. Mulcahy said more space is “critical for this type of collaborative and lab-based learning. You have the flexibility to be able to let students move around and work together in small groups. In a more traditional classroom, you’re almost forced to work tightly together in a big group because you don’t have the luxury of freedom we’ve been blessed with here.”

The greenhouse will be about 1,200 square feet. It is modeled after the University of Virginia’s greenhouse, which promotes a research-based field of plant study. Mulcahy said that many agriculture programs are more production-based, with a focus on the economics of growing and selling plants. “Our initial focus is more on the science behind it.” Students will have the space to design and carry out their own research projects involving plant growth and maintenance. Once the ESA is at full capacity, Mulcahy said they hope to add a production bay, and students will able to choose which area interests them most, research or production. “That’s the dream—to have a greenhouse bay for both,” he says. The greenhouse will be positioned to optimize the sun. “Since the majority of the time we’re in school is not the peak growing season, we need that southern exposure.”

Simon Radar, Cooper Lowe, Nathaniel Brawley-Magee, Evan Sposato, Dylan Bumgardner, and Eric Wilson (from left to right) prepare to build compost bins for the IRC New Roots program.  (Photo: Adam Mulcahy)
Simon Radar, Cooper Lowe, Nathaniel Brawley-Magee, Evan Sposato, Dylan Bumgardner, and Eric Wilson (from left to right) prepare to build compost bins for the IRC New Roots program.  (Photo: Adam Mulcahy)

Mulcahy and his students have worked hard since the ESA’s inception to make the most of the space they do have. Using a grant to pay for materials and tanks, they transformed a little-used storage room outside the main classroom into a working “aqua lab.” They cleaned out the room and built shelves to hold fish tanks and other equipment. Last year’s senior art students painted the walls with vibrant images of sea life, including an orca, a sea turtle, and an octopus. ESA’s sophomores, who focus on biology, ecology, and horticulture, rotate “jobs” every three weeks. “The kids are in charge of taking care of all these tanks and monitoring everything. One group will record all the data and teach the next group the procedures. They look at the health of the fish and test the water quality. The room is designed for them to study, monitor, and learn about both the lifecycles and ecosystems of fresh and saltwater fish. The little ecosystems they have in here are going to survive and thrive on their watch. They are actively involved as a portion of their learning,” Mulcahy said.

They have been creative in turning every available area around them into a makeshift classroom. “We gained a couple hundred feet that have added learning, just by transitioning from a hallway to a learning space,” Mulcahy said, referring to the hallway outside the classroom where students gather to grow and study plants. They meet in groups and take notes on whiteboards attached to the walls. Eventually the plants will move to the greenhouse, which will open up space in the hallway. “It’s great to have this flexibility,” Mulcahy says. “We have been able to move kids around and make messes and noise and think and build.”

The students also created a self-sustaining goldfish pond in the courtyard just outside, along with a waterfall and a pollinator garden. “The students eat lunch out here, they work together out here, and they are in charge of pruning and mulching it and keeping it nice and healthy. What’s so valuable about this program is not just the curriculum, but the fact that the kids are really engaged. It really is their program,” Mulcahy said.

He noted that the students have put their knowledge to practical use to give back to the community. In October, “The freshmen helped winterize all the crop gardens at the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville. The kids were so excited when they finished because they felt so much pride, and they could see the difference they made. Because of the experiences these kids have, they’ll remember this kind of stuff. They’ve been really involved in the process of creating this academy.”

In the future, Mulcahy hopes to embark on other projects, such as terracing the hillside outside the classroom for gardens, so his students can learn about erosional control methods and how to grow on a variety of landscapes. He knows more learning space will be necessary and has planned for it. Another classroom could be added on to the one that’s being built now.

The academy relies on grants, community support, and partnerships for many of its projects. One such project is a large aquaponics tank that gives students the opportunity for hands-on learning about growing plants without soil, using only mineral nutrient solutions in water. The project was funded by the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation.

“The more involvement we have from local businesses and nonprofit organizations, the better. I couldn’t do it without all their help,” Mulcahy said. “One other big goal we have down the road is we want to give the students the opportunity for more mentorships and internships and job shadows. Environmental studies is such a huge field.

“We’ve been blessed already with people in the community who want to help. The more people who can give the students these enriching opportunities, the better the whole model is.”

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