ERMS magnet leading Rockford into greener days

Environmentally friendly education leaves the schoolroom

by BETH ALTENA

They learn about everything with a nature in mind. The East Rockford Middle School (ERMS) Earthkeepers magnet includes sixth- and seventh-grade students who, between them, not only cover the different areas of traditional curriculum with nature-themed studies, but are also literally changing the landscape around them.

Members of the Rockford Izaak Walton League explain to students how a rain barrel is constructed and works. Pictured is current President Georgia Donovan along with past president and current board member Duane DeVries. The Izaak Walton League is a national conservation group with a local chapter, which meets at its headquarters at 5641 Myers Lake Road.

The Earthkeepers convinced Principal Mike Ramm to propose a community garden on school property, a plan which dovetails nicely with similar plans underway at the Rockford Administrative Building property in downtown Rockford (see related story, page 1). They hope to further involve the public in promoting environmentally friendly practice with the use of rain barrels and hope to ask the City of Rockford to jump on board as well.

Along with the members of the Izaak Walton League, the school is working with Groundswell, a coalition of community partners with a goal of hands-on environmental learning. The class was visited late in 2010 in preparation for spring of 2011, when they hope to be prepared to present the public with rain barrels as a fundraiser but mostly to promote environmentally friendly use of rainfall.

“Any time you can create excitement by making curriculum come to life and even branch out into the community, you can see the students’ passion and enthusiasm. They know they are making a difference,” said Ramm.

Ramm said the kids are divided into magnets at ERMS according to their own interests. Earthkeepers is just one of several, and creates an interesting dynamic. Teacher Linda Spencer points out that the environmental nature of the magnet draws the students who like outdoor activities such as hunting as well as nature-lovers who want to save the rainforests and whales and don’t understand hunters at all.

Among the projects students undertake as they learn core curriculum studies—such as math, science, social studies, language and technology—are building rain barrels and planting gardens. Rain barrels are a project that is ideal for many reasons, but especially suited to school groups. According to Georgia Donovan, local Izaak Walton League president, rain barrels can be made cheaply and by pretty much anyone. Along with past president and board member Duane DeVries, Donovan walked the students through the creation and use of rain barrels.

“You can use just about any big container that didn’t hold nasty chemicals,” Donovan described, and said restaurants will often donate containers or sell them inexpensively.

Donovan said rain barrels are designed to capture water, such as from a roof downspout, for use later. They are handy for watering gardens while on vacation or for container gardening. Container gardening has many benefits, such as being more easily accessible for someone who has trouble getting up and down, because the pots can be located at a convenient level.

Another component of watering with a rain barrel, a hose to move the water from the barrel to its intended destination, is also a good candidate for reuse. Hoses with holes that may normally be discarded work just fine for use with rain barrels.

“Everything is just junk made into something new,” Donovan described.

Part of the day’s visit included discussing the importance of water in the environment. “Here in Michigan we have lots of water and take it for granted,” Donovan said. People don’t think twice about letting rainfall go down the driveway and into the storm sewers, but that water is then treated and leaves your area. She said out west there are “water wars” and people buy rights to runoff water, so rain barrels aren’t allowed. “Here in Michigan we are blessed with a lot of water and need to take care of it.”

Planning the rain barrel project provides many opportunities to practice core curriculum skills, such as figuring costs to produce and then sell the barrels, which requires math, science in learning about energy, weather, data collection, earth science and graphing, and more.

Teacher Barb Altizer said the magnet received a grant from Groundswell to study water and chose rain barrels. Students are also learning about rain gardens. Ramm said the different projects the kids are working on have many layers. “The real goal is to create passion and excitement while the students are learning. They are really walking the walk.”

To find out more about the Earthkeepers magnet and Groundswell, visit rockfordschools.org/earth-keepers-210/home and groundswellmi.org.

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