Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Gary Swick: Real-World Science Leads to Action

An award-winning science teacher inspires students to be the environmental "best in the galaxy."
By Richard Rapaport
Credit: Indigo Flores

Award-winning veteran science teacher Gary Swick, of Dundee-Crown High School, in Carpentersville, Illinois, 40 miles northwest of Chicago, considers his role as much magician as teacher in his eight environmentally focused courses. "They often don't want to learn, so you have to trick them into it," Swick says of some of his initially unenthusiastic students.

For much of his time at Dundee-Crown, Swick has inspired his students "by dragging them outside and opening their senses." Nature field trips to such places as the nearby Fox River can be a wise social investment as well. Swick mentions a poll conducted for the Illinois State Education Board's Environmental Meisters and Mentors Program in which roughly 80 percent of environmental scientists attribute their career choices to just these kinds of high school outings.

Swick's own career choice was influenced by a bit of wisdom from his father, a chemist unhappily employed as a corporate foreman in Chicago: "Pick a career you love so you don't have to go to work," his father advised. Swick, who majored in natural resources management at the University of Wisconsin, was able to make his love of the outdoors a part of his teaching career at a time when environmental issues were of little general concern. "I got to do what I wanted because nobody cared," he says. Swick's public profile has grown significantly since then, along with the popularity of his courses.

Early in his career, Swick supervised the founding of an organization called Friends of the Fox River, dedicated to studying and protecting that 185-mile-long watercourse, which flows through Wisconsin and Illinois. In 1999, the organization won a Christa McAuliffe Fellowship to fund the Fox River Monitoring Network. Swick used the money to monitor different aspects of the river, including water quality, invasive plants, and animal and insect life.

"I saw it as a powerful educational tool and a real motivator," Swick says about a program that involves "real science, in the real world, with real implications." He compiles the data gathered by each year's classes and uses it as a core-teaching tool. Swick explains, "We can look at the last four years of data, and if things get worse, we can answer why and ask what we can do about it."

These days, Swick is definitely not following another bit of fatherly advice: "Don't commute." In July, along with colleague Elizabeth Woods, Swick won a $10,000 A+ for Energy grant from British Petroleum. The money will outfit a school bus to take the educational message of sustainability on the road. Planning to get his "mobile energy fair" rolling by January 2008, Swick has used the project to encourage the kind of curriculum that, he feels, "does more than teach skills and content to put in the bank."

This real-world, cross-disciplinary learning is apparent in Dundee-Crown's auto shop, which is performing bus maintenance, while the chemistry department is transforming used oil from the cafeteria into biofuel to run Swick's bus. Meanwhile, journalism and theater classes are producing displays for the bus tour, as student-artists work to transform the bus into a rolling environmental billboard -- by painting over the s and the h in school, the bus's label now reads "cool bus."

Swick is deeply concerned about the increasing disconnect between today's students and nature. "They don't know how beautiful and sensitive the ecosystem is, or even why they should care about it," he says. Swick's Friends of the Fox River, the "cool bus," and school recycling programs are all part of an effort to encourage students to become what Swick calls the environmental "best in the galaxy."

It is work that exemplifies his most basic beliefs about preserving the natural environment as well as about education: "The more aware you are, the better you understand, the better you understand, the more you appreciate, and the more you appreciate, the more you want to take action!"


Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes regularly to Edutopia.

Green Heroes



Comments (2)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

SirMixAlot's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Swick taught me that the fox river isn't 100% crud.

Cindy Hoch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Gary,
Do you remember me? I was one of your students in the "soil&water conservation class," and "forestry & wildlife management class" that you taught and I made you a collage of all nature photo's.
Your the 2nd teacher I got in touch with this evening,the other was my 4th grade teacher. Your classes were AWESOME and I really enjoyed them alot!!
Hope to hear from you soon,
Cindy Hoch

P.S.It was Irving Crown when I had you as a teacher.

Discussion Grading PBL

Last comment 5 hours 26 min ago in PBL Planning

blog Creating a Welcoming and Intellectually Challenging Classroom

Last comment 1 day 22 hours ago in Back to School

Discussion Project Management Methodology for the Primary School

Last comment 4 days 22 hours ago in Project-Based Learning

Discussion PBL & Kids with Special Needs/Autism Spectrum Disorders

Last comment 1 week 8 hours ago in Project-Based Learning

Discussion How do you improve education in Nairobi slums?

Last comment 1 week 2 days ago in Project-Based Learning

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.