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
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
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.