Many people wonder how Action Projects with Cottonwood Institute work and what makes them so powerful. The key is the students. The students have to be invested in the topic and really care about the outcome in order for the projects to not just be another course requirement when many students already feel overwhelmed with coursework. How do you get 100% buy-in from a whole class of students?
We start by letting the students experience the outdoors and explore their environment. You don’t want to save what you don’t love. In the case of the STRIVE Prep – Excel CAP class, it began in January with schoolyard outings during class time: catching snowflakes and looking at them with magnifying glasses during a magical snowfall; changing class plans just because the sun was out on a beautiful winter day; and taking a snowshoe trip in the mountains where we built snow shelters, had snowball fights, and looked at animal tracks in the snow.
We also expose the students to a whole range of environmental issues. I would tell them about the latest thing on NPR’s Science Fridays and we had scavenger hunts for whatever environmental issues we could find in magazines from the library. Some of the students would bring in topics they had heard about outside of class, but most of the students don’t have families who talk about environmental issues around the dinner table. We brought in a few guest speakers, such as employees from Denver Water and GrowHaus.
We let them see that every environmental issue has more than one side. We did a mock trial based on the The Rhino Hunter podcast. Each student listened to the podcast from the point of view of a different stakeholder: from the hunter, to the villager, to the game warden, to the rhino himself. This process lets students have more empathy and helps them to craft their messages more carefully.
Finally, we had to decide on an issue to form our Action Project. First we brainstormed about every environmental issue or environmental project we had heard about. After we listed these on a big master list, we had each person pick their top 12 topics. Nothing really popped out as being The Special Topic. So, we had an environmental issue contest — a pageant, if you will. Each student drew one of these last 12 topics and defended it to two of their peers. The winners of these semifinal rounds were given crowns and accolades. They then had to argue the topics to the rest of the class. It looked like there was a winner! But wait, the winning topic had a few vehement opponents. It turned out that the first runner-up had won all the hearts and minds of the students. What the students really cared about was saving bees from extinction!
So we crowned queen bee and then the fun began. We invited local beekeepers and bee activists to talk to us. We brought in a hive and felt its warmth and vibration as we watched the bees through the screen. We read books and watched videos. We dreamed about having our own hive of honeybees, but time and permits just wouldn’t allow. The students came to the consensus that making a habitat for wild bees in an interpretive bee garden would be a great way to help raise awareness and fight colony collapse at the same time. We designed a garden, got plants donated, built mason bee houses, and dug through hard Colorado clay. We made interpretive plaques describing why bees are important and what people can do to help them. We planted flowers and within ten minutes of the last plant being placed in the ground our first honeybee visited. And, a group of kids learned that they really can make the future brighter and the world a better place.
Come visit our pollinator garden! It’s on the north side of the STRIVE Prep – Excel building at 2960 North Speer Boulevard in Denver.
A special thanks goes out to all of our supporters and funders that help make our partnership with STRIVE Preparatory Schools possible this school year, including: Ladd Foundation, Larrk Foundation, and PeyBack Foundation.
Written by: CAP Instructor, Erin Angel
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