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GreenSTEM@VCU = STEM Education + 21st Century Skills and Environmental Awareness

Does a waterfall cascade from your home, office or school’s roof every time it rains? Do you need a canoe to get from your car to your school or office door? You are not alone. Most of us have encountered a problem with runoff in areas where we work or shop. What does this have to do with STEM Education, 21st Century skills and environmental awareness? Teachers who participate in GreenSTEM@VCU have found that this rainy day problem can help answer two age-old student questions: “Why do I need to know this?” and “How will I ever use this in the real world?” 

By combining integrative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education with service-learning, teachers and students throughout Virginia are identifying environmental concerns in their community and researching, planning and implementing projects to address those needs. Visit GreenStem@VCU to learn more about the problems of and solutions to runoff. Then use the “Down Came the Rain” lesson plan to help calculate the amount of runoff produced by your school, home or other building. 

Students throughout Virginia have chosen to address their school’s runoff problem in a variety of ways. Some have installed rain barrels, bioretension pounds and rain gardens. Several have chosen to address two issues at once by using the water collected in the rain barrels to water school and community vegetable gardens. The sample unit plan shows how one school worked with local environmental organizations to raise awareness of water issues while participating in tree plantings and watershed cleanups.

The GreenSTEM@VCU online curriculum is designed to help teachers focus middle school students’ academic engagement using high-quality service-learning instruction in an integrated STEM curriculum. Four of the video units introduce Service-Learning and important service-learning principles such as Youth Voice, Reflection and Partnerships. The other four units focus on environmental issues. In addition to Runoff, students can investigate Carbon Sequestration, Alternative Energy and Solar Energy. All of the units provide lesson plans and sample unit plans that show how teachers have incorporated these principles and topics into their activities.

In addition to the online curriculum, VCU offered the GreenSTEM@VCU Teacher Academy. This on-campus-online experience began in the summer with an intensive program of hands-on activities at VCU’s green LEED Platinum Rice Center education building and VCU's state-of-the-art School of Engineering facilities. Faculty and staff helped the teachers explore green roofs, rain gardens, and alternative energy options though inquiry-based investigations. VCU Division of Community Engagement faculty helped participating teachers build their skills in creating service-learning lessons that engage students in organized service activities to benefit the community and the environment. Teachers left with the ability to enhance curriculum and ramp up student enthusiasm by blending environmental service projects with reflection and classroom-based learning activities.

During the school year, teachers and students identified local community concerns related to energy or environmental issues and developed service-learning projects that address those needs. GreenSTEM@VCU projects have included developing school-wide recycling programs, conducting school energy audits, and providing recommendations to reduce energy waste. With support from PTA’s, local businesses, and state-funded grants, students turn theory into reality and discover how STEM concepts relate to the “real world” of their own communities. Along the way, students practice valuable 21st Century Skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation.

Click here to learn more about GreenSTEM@VCU

Article by Suzanne V. Kirk, GreenSTEM@VCU Project Coordinator

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