George Lucas Educational Foundation

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Montpelier High School

Grades 9-12 | Montpelier, VT

Integrated Studies: Sustainability and Cross-Curricular Connections

By connecting the theme of sustainability across multiple disciplines, the teachers at Montpelier High School have built a robust, integrated teaching approach that engages students and creates community.
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Integrated Studies: Sustainability and Cross-Curricular Connections (Transcript)

Tom: The social, economic, environmental needs of this generation, that in and of itself is important to teach. From an education perspective, we are experiencing increased engagements across a variety of disciplines.

You can trim both of these right there. You still have, right, the leaf. This is the leaf, photochloroplast will be photosynthesis. This though is the shoot and it's going to keep growing, make sense?

Student: Yeah.

Tom: When I first got up here, we weren't even using the term sustainability, but we were recycling, we were composting. And then we started tying in a little more into the classes. Then I realized, if we were to really look at all the different facets of sustainability, certainly the social and economic in a biology class, we wouldn't get to all the other things we had to teach. So we put out an email to teachers to see who was interested in having a conversation around using the concept of sustainability to make cross-disciplinary connections. About a dozen teachers came together after school on their own time to start talking about, what can we do here on the campus to really model sustainability? The idea of food production came up pretty quick. We use the overarching theme of sustainability to provide this context.

Sam: We have greens, and what eats our greens other than us?

Student: Aphids.

Sam: Aphids consume some of that, and ladybugs eat the aphids.

Tom: We use the food system as a vehicle to generate these experiential lessons; they're standards-based. So teachers were involved from the beginning on a voluntary level. Then we started to find different ways to tie in other classes, other teachers and said, "Hey, while we're doing this, you know, in biology, you're looking at maybe these ecological implications, maybe you can look at some of the economic pieces that are driving it."

Heather: What's cool about public banks is that they're not just a way to reduce inequality, but they're also a way to promote sustainability in our state, so--

Sustainability is really important to me and it's sort of surprising to me that it's not important to all economists because economics is the study of how to use scarce resources to fulfill infinite human wants and needs.

A priority of a public bank would be to make low interest loans to small businesses. Imagine that TJ and Tabitha decide to start a business growing and selling wheat. They could then get a small loan from the public bank, so you get that wealth creation but you don't have the wealth extraction because the interest ends up staying right here.

Tom: We were going to do this irrigation system, so we wanted some type of alternative energy to power the pump that was out there. So I tossed that over to Anne Watson, the physics teacher, and said, "Hey, this is what we're looking for. You want to tie this into your curriculum?"

Anne: And I said, "Well, maybe we could make this a feasibility study for my students."

We need to write a table of the data that you're going to collect.

And so we, as a class, came to some conclusions, one of them being that the school should look into getting photovoltaics or solar panels.

Tom: They raised the money for it and ultimately worked with the company to install those panels.

Anne: Now for my physics classes, we're looking at what the production rate is, and is that space sustainable in terms of electricity? Are we producing enough to meet the needs of that space?

Sam: So you've got biomass weight. What's the third one?

Student: Respiration?

Sam: Yeah, heat and respiration, right?

Tom: We introduced students to the greenhouse in biology, focusing on nutrient cycles, as well as plant physiology, anatomy.

Sam: Make a flow chart of that energy that's coming into the greenhouse.

Right now we're doing a unit on the biosphere and we're looking at energy transfer.

We can use something from...?

Student: From the biomass, from those consumers when they die goes into the ground. They can be used by the producers and their nutrients from their body.

Sam: Yeah, the key word there is nutrients. Decomposers are really good at returning these things back to the system.

Tom: Over the years, though, we've worked hard to give them a number of different options of classes from AP Spanish to algebra, in which they would have a broader experience with sustainability and food production.

Sam: It doesn't matter how long I stand at the front of the room and talk about photosynthesis and cellular respiration if they have no context in which to think about those things. Being able to go out to the greenhouse and really see those things in action makes the learning that much more meaningful.

Anne: I would encourage teachers to find those ties between what they're doing and someone else's class or curriculum. We can create these opportunities for each other as teachers.

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Integrated Studies: Sustainability and Cross-Curricular Connections

Montpelier High School uses the concept of sustainability to make curriculum connections across a wide variety of disciplines at the school, from students studying nutrient cycles in biology class, to learning about sustainability through the lens of economics, or even looking at how energy is sustainable in physics class.

Teachers find that these cross-disciplinary connections enhance student understanding, and therefore they encourage learning across disciplines. The concept of sustainability is visible in a concrete context via the school's greenhouse and food production model. Every student can understand sustainability from many perspectives and content areas. These cross-curricular connections provide for a richer, deeper learning experience for all students.

How It's Done at Montpelier High

How It's Done

Sustainability: Content + Approach

At MHS, the concept of sustainability is considered both important content to teach (by looking at the economic, social, and environmental angles) and an approach to teaching itself. The school built a greenhouse about ten years ago, and has been using it as an outdoor classroom with a focus on sustainability and food production.

Getting Started

Initially, teachers came together on a voluntary basis to explore the idea of sustainability and how they might incorporate it into their classes. Tom Sabo, a science teacher who's been at the school for almost 20 years, sent an email to see who was interested in having a conversation around using the concept of sustainability to make cross-disciplinary connections. About a dozen teachers showed up after school and began to talk about how to tie the concept into their curriculum. They decided that they wanted to make it a thread through their classes while also making the school itself a model of sustainability. What could they do on the campus to really model sustainability? The idea of food production came up pretty quickly, and they decided to explore building a greenhouse as an outdoor classroom.

The Greenhouse: A Big Idea

The school started off with a big vision -- an on-campus greenhouse. The first step was approaching the district for permission to build the greenhouse on school property. Once that was resolved, the school started raising grant money from both local and national funders.

The first grant was just a few hundred dollars from a local organization, but it was enough to get started. Most of the grants that came in were initially around environmental issues like dealing with our carbon footprint, or nutrition grants that addressed issues of teen obesity and diabetes. Later money came from educational organizations interested in things like service learning because it offered a great way to engage students. Grant funds mainly provided the money to build the greenhouse, and any other facilities like the hoop house. Over time the school proved that there was value in the greenhouse and sustainability approach, and the district also became a core supporter.

Daily operations of the greenhouse are actually paid for by the sale of the produce, which is sold at a discount to the food services department. The money the school makes from the produce is then used to purchase seeds, soil, and supplies for the greenhouse.

A cheaper and easier alternative to building a greenhouse could be to start with a hoop house, which is a nonpermanent structure. Hoop houses, which can be used to also grow a variety of crops, are easy to put up and take down. MHS currently supports both a greenhouse and a hoop house for additional crops.

Cross-Curricular Examples: Sustainability

Biology class is really at the center of tying sustainability to subject content. Every biology student learns about nutrient cycles, plant physiology, and anatomy, as well as units on the biosphere, energy transfer, and recycling nutrients. The greenhouse gives students an additional context for applying their learning, as everyone in biology class helps to produce the salad greens for the cafeteria.

In economics class, a teacher presented a unit about small banks and wealth creation and extraction. Another year, students looked at the cost-benefit analysis of the greenhouse expenses and the crops they grew.

In physics class, a teacher had the students do a feasibility study to see how much energy the greenhouse used, and whether the solar panels produced enough energy to meet the needs of the space.

In the environment applications class, students look at a range of sustainability issues including population, waste management, climate change, ozone depletion, and water runoff. They also get the outdoor gardens started, test the soil, and set up management and harvest plans for the next year's class to follow.

Professional Development for Teachers: Making Connections

The district has seen an increased interest in the work of MHS and the success of its greenhouse and sustainability focus. Professional development is now offered to all teachers interested in learning about sustainability and thinking about how they can make cross-disciplinary connections in their own classroom. The class is taught by MHS science teacher, Tom Sabo. It's a ten-week course, and teachers can also receive a recertification credit and a graduate credit from a local college when they complete the course. The course focuses on a food systems approach, and how to make those curriculum connections.


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