It’s around noon at Washington Middle School, a week before school lets out for summer and Stefanie Virgen and her class are hard at work at learning more about conservation.
But that learning isn’t taking place in the classroom — it’s taking place all around the WMS campus.
On the east side of the school, a handful of students are digging holes and planting native plants that not only look good but also, Virgen said, attract pollinators to the campus.
At a bridge overpass that connects the high school and middle school, two students work to make a trash catcher they hope will prevent debris from further blocking up the creek. Down below, three students pull long forgotten, mud-covered trash from the creek to promote water flow.
In Virgen’s college and career exploration conservation classes, students are challenged to tackle their learning through projects. For the past two years, that’s involved making conservation around the middle school a focus.
The conservation class has more than 80 students in it and when they meet, Virgen splits students up into groups to tackle different projects around campus.
Some students plant trees and plants, some remove invasive plant species that kill native plants and some even head down to the creek.
The plants that are placed around campus are native species that attract pollinators, bringing them closer to the school and making the surrounding area’s plant life healthier.
Virgen started the class roughly two years ago after she was asked to teach a college and career exploration course. She said project-based learning can be helpful for students because it involves getting up and out of the classroom and moving around.
“We’re not just handing them something and saying ‘this is what I expect,’ I’m saying ‘what do you expect, how can you take what we’ve learned and make it real world.’ ”
The work not only improves the campus, but also gives students a “lasting mark” on campus. The class has made her students care about the middle school’s habitat.
The benefits of project-based learning are further increased when students immediately see a result of their actions, she said. For instance, when a student plants a tree on campus, that tree could grow until that student’s child attends the school.
Those are the benefits of a “real world project.” Virgen said the challenge, at its core, was how can the school’s habitat could be improved, but has gone much farther than that.
“Our big concept was, what we do to the land, we do to the water, we do to ourselves,” she said. These are all projects they put together. They have to organize things, they had to decide what they need. They use what they learn in class to take ownership of their learning.”
The students have spent most of the year working on these projects, Virgen said. During each class, they’ve made more progress on their projects to the point of some of them being nearly completed.
Project-based learning gives students their own drive, Virgen said. For her class, that means students constantly emailing about projects, showing up early and leaving late and working in their free time.
“Whenever the kids are not only expected to tie their own learning together, but also come up with their own driving question and center themselves in goals they help create, you see them become more engaged, you seem them get excited,” she said.
Virgen said she will offering the class next year and even with 80 students, she hopes it continues to grow.
As a lifelong conservationist, she said it brings her a lot of pride to see so many students so invested in improving their campus and the nature that surrounds it.
“I love seeing the kids who haven’t been outside as much. You start opening their eyes to it. The kids see what they can tangibly do and they latch on to that,” Virgen said. “For me, as a teacher, there is no greater paycheck.”