A multitude of articles and publications are claiming we are at an environmental tipping point. Sustainable and peaceful human living is one side. The other being economic and world health collapse.
The students and staff of West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science are trying to remain hopeful and brighten the future in an effort to prevent insurmountable crisis.
Alan Bosker, alumnus of Grand Rapids Community College and secondary school principal at WMAES, explained what they do differently.
“Dirt is part of our uniform,” Bosker said. “I didn’t like when people said that about us at first, but once I realized it’s a little true, I decided to own it.”
First off, the preschoolers spend about 80% of their day outdoors when it’s not too cold out. Can you imagine almost all your preschool hours, besides nap time, learning and playing outside?
Mainly, each classroom from preschool to eighth grade have at least one lesson completely outdoors. There are two members on staff, Holly Orians, environmental coordinator, and environmental specialist, Shawn Wessel, whose jobs are to come up with ways to make what the kids are learning in class an outdoor lesson.
“Everyone learns differently. For me, the labs in bio classes really helped,” Wessel said.
For example, the environmental team took the old ‘how tall is a tree?’ problem out of the textbook for multiple grades. Older students used the Pythagorean Theorem to figure the height of the tree. The middle ages used ratios of shadows of the tree and themselves to guess the height.
After doing the math, they cut the tree down. They purposefully measured on a dead tree and this way they could check their work. The youngest kids counted the rings to see how many years old it is. And the oldest students, in high school, used the wood to construct boxes.
The boxes are designed for releasing salmon into the Rogue River, a stream that flows into the Grand River. This is part of a project where students raise salmon from infancy to release into the wild.
Bosker emphasized, “How will your idea really work?” They practice creating and inventing at the school as well. The high school students work on designing and making birdhouses for specific species of birds native to the area. Once they are set up, the students can monitor their progress and whether or not they succeeded in attracting their type of species.
The school was established in 1995. It operated out of rental classrooms in downtown GR until 2003, when the school bought over 60 acres and built a home for itself. The school has been consistently expanding since then.
There are trails across nearly all the land. The school has hundreds of snowshoes for the kids during winter.
“Our goal is to expose the students to the environment and the community as much as possible,” Bosker said.
There are also some typical and some atypical student operated clubs to help students learn and grow outside and/or after school. Some examples are Esports, Chess, D & D, Pokemon, Science Olympiad, Journalism and Gay-Straight Allegiance.
WMAES has an average SAT score of 1016.7. This is above average for the surrounding schools in the area. According to U.S. World News Report, they have a graduation rate of 75%. This is below average for the surrounding schools.
“This might be because our program is a bit more rigorous than some of our local competitors,” Bosker said.. “I want my (WMAES) diplomas to carry weight, more than mine (Bosker’s high school diploma) does.”
Of course, with the school’s title, the school is also working to be as sustainable as possible. They have an outdoor seasonal garden where students can grow food that will be eaten in the cafeteria. There are also lettuce towers at different stages of growth around the school.
There’s a dishwasher for the reusable food trays and all food waste is composted.
“We use recyclable plastic as much as possible. I think straws are the only exception,” Bosker said.
The school hasn’t used renewable energy in the past but they have recently installed a new solar panel that powers “roughly half of a house on average,” Bosker said.
During my tour of the school, multiple children ages 7-9 were choosing to eat salad. Moments later, one of the children around that age ran up and hugged Bosker.
“I take the most joy in helping the kids find their passion,” Bosker said.