Early in December, 17 Pacific Beach Elementary fourth-graders loaded sleeping bags, suitcases, boots, backpacks, boundless excitement and great anticipation into a big yellow school bus. Three hours later, accompanied by three adults, they stepped into a unique experience on Bainbridge Island called IslandWood.
An experiential environmental science-focused school, IslandWood extends learning beyond the classroom, engaging students in critical thinking, scientific investigations, and actions that build awareness of and concern for the wellbeing of people and the planet.
According to teacher Skyler Schmidt, over the four-day stay, the students engaged in projects like using the scientific inquiry cycle to examine the impact of food waste.
In other learning experiences, students identified mushrooms and glacial deposits on a nature hike and climbed a repurposed fire watchtower to study the forest canopy. One field group played a game called “life and death in the forest,” then compared the game to a real-life ecosystem in Yellowstone National Park.
After observing data from a system called the living machine — a system that takes human bio-waste and turns it into clean water for irrigation and other uses around the IslandWood campus — students learned the process of developing hypotheses and conclusions.
Reflecting on her experience, Kiana Mail identified the team activities — including balancing on a wire and on a see-saw – as being among her favorites. Caleb Gonzalez was most captivated by knowledge pertinent to all coastal communities, sharing, “An estuary is when saltwater and freshwater mix.”
Schmidt pursued this learning opportunity for his class and, thanks to IslandWood’s financial support for schools with a high free- and reduced-lunch count, was able to get a substantial discount on the cost. North Beach Superintendent Andrew Kelly was supportive of the class participating, noting that “Mr. Schmidt wanted to provide his class this experience to grow and deepen the culture of learners within his classroom. That’s what we want our teachers to do: Assess where their kids are and what they need and do whatever is necessary to move kids forward.”
Looking back on the experience, Schmidt said, “It is my sincere hope that students gained a curiosity about the world around them, knowledge about how they can positively impact that world, and memories as vivid as the day they were made. The scientific and academic knowledge gained was astounding — but so too were the relationships formed with one another, students from other schools, and instructors and teachers. As our students loaded onto the bus to return home, there were more than a few tears to go around — many from kids that I least expected,” he added.
“As we grow as a school district, we are looking for ways to expand learning opportunities for kids,” Superintendent Kelly said. “This is vitally important because experiential and project-based learning are key ways to accelerate academic and, as importantly, social and emotional growth. IslandWood is a great fit with our educational goals and instructional philosophy.”