Doing the Dirty Work for Our Environment

 Students shoveling piles of oyster shells

In February, while other science students in Charleston were filling out worksheets and completing vocabulary exercises, Ms. Kendrick’s Environmental Science and Natural Resource Management students were shoveling and bagging messy piles of oyster shells and planting sea grasses for Low Country salt marshes. As participants in the South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program (SCORE), her students have been able to acquire first-hand experience in the complex work of natural resource management.

The SCORE program operates through the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, with a goal of maintaining the habitat at the minimum cost to taxpayers. The program, together with local citizen groups, has builts 225 reefs along the South Carolina coast. For Ms. Kendrick’s students, the program has been an invaluable opportunity for them to both volunteer their time and learn about the public policies that go into the maintenance of our local ecosystem.

Education is often misleading for students. Fields of study exist in silos, experiments are conducted with a defined outcome already in mind, and students are implicitly taught that knowledge already exists, and it is their job to learn it. For Ms. Kendrick’s students, who are as likely to be found measuring beach erosion with makeshift emery boards as they are to be found analyzing complex texts, learning is about dealing with the complexities of the environment and public policy, and about devising solutions to improve the world. And, sometimes, about getting dirty.

Her course, the first in a career sequence for students interested in environmental science, allows students to apply what they know about biology, ecology, and data analysis to real-world problems. Students not only discuss the idea of natural resource management, but action plan around issues like sea-level rise, and think about the ways in which good natural resource management often involves tradeoffs.

For Ms. Kendrick, investing students in their environment means working as hard as possible to connect abstract ideas to the realities of the local community.

“Most kids that live in the Low Country don’t realize how special their local environment is,” she said. “A lot of environmental science and resource management books focus on famous examples like the wolves and buffalo out west, or agricultural concepts. But for the Low Country, looking at the local fisheries, salt marshes, and risk of invasive species from the shipping industry is going to be more meaningful.”

On that recent February day, students were getting a look at the often dirty side of maintaining the local habitat, as well as playing an active part in citizen science. By introducing the shells back into the waterways of Charleston, they were assuring that new oysters will be able to grow. What on the outside looked like a bunch of students shoveling oysters was actually a group of students gaining a detailed understanding of both the ecology of salt marshes and the filtering power of oysters, as well as the complexities involved in working to maintain the local waterways.

For Ms. Kendrick and Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, it is this application of science to the real world that is so powerful for students.
 Environmental Science and Natural Resource Management students working together to clean up shells 

Preparing the Next Generation of Educators

December 10, 2018

 Four students working together on a circular table

One student will not stop talking. Another student is a loner. A third student keeps missing school.

These are not the student’s in Ms. Burbage’s Teacher Cadet class, but rather descriptions of hypothetical classroom scenarios that her class is exploring in their last day before placement in classroom’s throughout Charleston County.

The Teacher Cadet program at Charleston Charter School for Math and Science allows students to explore the teaching profession at more than a theoretical level; students spend four weeks assisting classroom teachers, working with students, and even teaching their own lessons to students in different parts of the city. While the program is intended to help find and encourage the next generation of teachers, for many of the students it is an opportunity to grow in their understanding of human development, gain confidence in public speaking, and perhaps gain a appreciation for the complexity and challenges of the teaching profession.

In one group, four students discussed a scenario in which a student would not stop talking, trying to understand the problem at more than a surface level.

“Maybe they aren’t getting any attention at home,” one student suggested.

“It could be that there’s something personal going on, and this is their way to get attention, or maybe get someone to talk to them,” another said.

For students in Ms. Burbage’s highly selective Teacher Cadet class, who wrote essays and were interviewed for acceptance into the program, the class is also a chance to explore the history of education, and understand their own place within that narrative.

While senior Ageia Jones plans to become a dentist and not a teacher, she said the program has still been very beneficial for her.

“If I become a dentist, I need to be able to communicate with different types of people,” she said, “And teaching forces you to do that. You always have to think about the best way to communicate to get your point across.”

Ageia will be a cadet with the same teacher who taught her in first grade. She is excited about getting started, but nervous about the challenges she will face.

“My biggest fear,” she says, “is that I will have kids who won’t retain what I’m trying to teach.”

For Ageia and her classmates in Ms. Burbage’s class, the experience will push them in new and challenging ways, and also provide them with the unique ability to shape young lives in their community.

 Ms. Burbage's class holding purple paper bags 

Curing Cancer in the Classroom

December 10, 2018

   Teacher speaking to two students at their lab station

Ms. Withrow’s science classroom is not a good place to visit if you’re looking for a lesson out of a textbook.

“Remember,” Ms. Withrow said, “We’re trying to keep the mutant alive. We already proved that we could keep the wild-type alive, and now we’re trying to keep the mutant alive.”

While this sentence might seem strange in another context, in Ms. Withrow’s Medical Interventions class, it makes perfect sense. Her students, mostly juniors in the upper-level Medical Interventions class at Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, quietly absorbed her directions as they prepped their lab stations. Some covered petri dishes with tin foil, while others exposed samples to UV radiation. Two juniors worked to apply different quantities of sunscreen to a petri dish.

“The students will be examining the impact of UV radiation on a variety of yeast with the DNA strand responsible for self-repairing removed,” Ms. Withrow explained, “So, with exposure to UV radiation, the yeast will either live or die. This should give the students some insight into the prevention of skin cancer.”

While one group tested the impact of different quantities of the same sunscreen, another tested whether or not sunscreen marketed specifically for the face might be more effective than that intended for general protection. At the next lab station, students applied small amounts of liquid sunscreen onto one sample, while preparing a lotion variety for another sample.

The lab is part of the Medical Interventions curriculum in the Project Lead the Way Program. In Project Lead the Way, students are able to take a sequence of advanced Science and Engineering courses, building up their capacity for critical thinking and analysis. In this single class, every student hopes to pursue a career in the medical profession.

At one lab table, students expressed interest in pursuing careers as a trauma surgeon, a biochemist, a physical therapist, and a veterinarian. Senior Hailie Grant is interested in becoming a pharmacist. She loves that fact that the class, “…is helpful in that it has us examine the way that different compounds interact with the body systems, which will be really helpful for me.”

For students in Ms. Withrow’s class, the end of the lab in some sense serves as the beginning of the work. Students sat talking with one another, thinking through the ways that they might have tampered with the results of their study and putting together Minority Reports.

“I think I might have exposed the sample for too long before putting it under UV,” one student said.

Another student considered the manner in which he’d applied sunscreen to the sample, worrying that his method had not been consistent throughout the process.

The Charleston Charter School for Math and Science is a school built on the premise that students learn best when they are challenged with real tasks and given the space to explore. Ms. Withrow’s Medical Interventions class takes that mission seriously.

 Student putting a tin foil-covered petri dish into a box 

Expanding Empathy at CCSMS

December 10, 2018

 Two students presenting on the SmartBoard in the front of the class 

While Charleston Charter School for Math and Science hopes to develop inquisitive, academic scholars, a key component of the school’s mission statement is working toward social equality. The seventh grade teachers take this goal seriously, and recently had students participate in a Revolution Hour to expand their sense of empathy and explore the books they had been reading in class.

Seventh graders read from a choice of four books: Harbor Me, George, Amal Unbound, and Young Gifted and Black. On November 12, the students were able to participate with community members to explore the themes raised in these books.

After reading Amal Unbound, the story of a young Pakistani girl forced into indentured servitude, Ms. Patterson took a group of students on a visit to the Mosque of Charleston. In Mr. Allen’s room, students had a round-table discussion of the book Young Gifted and Black, mediated by Dr. Anthony James, the Director of Minority Education and Outreach at the College of Charleston. In Ms. Peele’s room students who had read Harbor Me discussed the meanings behind their names.

Guests from We Are Family, a Charleston LGBTQ+ support and advocacy organization, visited students in Ms. Palumbo’s Room. They led students in an introductory activity with the goal of sensitizing students to the use of proper gender pronouns.

The first few students laughed as they said “he/him”, or “she/her”, but within a couple of minutes the students were using the identifiers without a second thought, recognizing and respecting the practice.

The students in Ms. Palumbo’s room had read George, the story of a transgender girl and her struggles to be identified and recognized for who she is. The students in Ms. Palumbo’s room grappled with ideas around gender identity vs. gender expression, having a contained, controlled conversation in the classroom to mirror the larger narrative happening in the wider culture around this very issue.

For the seventh grade teachers, instilling compassion and empathy in their students is not incidental to the learning process, but rather something that must be nourished and given the proper space. Graduating scholars who care about social equality means exposing students to new ways of thinking, and to lives that differ from their own.

Student Poets

December 10, 2018

 Students presenting in class 

In Ms. Westbrook’s Ninth Grade English Class, the whiteboard was filled with words:

  • Female
  • gay
  • straight
  • ambition
  • faith
  • heritage

These words were a starting point, the raw material for the poetry her students were producing.

On November 12, Charleston Poet Laureate Marcus Amaker and local poet and writer Matthew Foley visited with middle and high school students at Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, leading students in writing exercises that pushed them to use language to communicate thoughts that they rarely put into words.

The session began with Amaker and Foley sharing their poetry with the class.

Foley, a former teacher, read his poem “Sarah Wants to Ask Out a Girl”, while Amaker read his poem “Strange Roots”, a painful examination of race and identity, ending with the words:

“here i am, again, forced to rise above worms that are meant to feed on my souland decompose my spirit.”

This sharing of vulnerability was then passed off to the students, who slowly, at times laughing and joking through their shyness, began to share their words with the class.

A young girl shared her thoughts on the the difficulty of adolescence.

“We all think that we want to be older,” she read, “but when you get older you might realize you want to be a kid again.”

Another student, a young man, struggled with the challenges of life and ever-changing expectations in his writing.

“I used to think that life was a golden ticket, but now I think it’s a death trial waiting to happen.”

While Charleston Charter School for Math and Science was founded to provide a rigorous STEM education, teachers like Ms. Westbrook know that truly innovative and critical thinking can only come from students who know themselves and have the ability to express challenging emotions and ideas. Her classroom is an example of the ways in which the teachers of Charleston Charter School for Math and Science creativity out of students every single day.

 Two students standing in front of the class 

Making the Planets Personal

December 10, 2018

 Four students standing in the front of the class, working together on the white board

In Mr. Hinson’s eighth grade science classroom, between solar system charts and moon phase diagrams, student work fills every available space. At a school specializing in STEM, where high school students can specialize in Biomedical Sciences, Engineering, or Computer Science through the rigorous Project Lead the Way curriculum, it is middle school teachers like Mr. Hinson that are tasked with instilling the passion for inquiry that will prepare students for challenging high school content.

For eight grader Aaliyah Adams, Mr. Hinson’s science class is the type of place where inquiry is encouraged and nourished.

“I like this class because Mr. Hinson really makes us see that there are no dumb questions,” Aaliyah said, while looking over a student-made project about Saturn. “He says that we can ask anything, because that’s the only way we’re going to learn more about science.”

This sense of openness and curiosity is present in all aspects of Mr. Hinson’s classroom. There is a visible energy to his classroom, and students circulate the room, examining each other’s solar system projects, and building on their own knowledge through the work of their peers.

The students in Mr. Hinson’s room have been studying the universe, starting big and working their way down. They have studied stars, constellations, and even made their own LED circuits. Next, the students will be building their literacy skills by advertising for a planetary travel company, a task that will require both a firm understanding of the standards and creativity. This project will take the students deeper into their study, where they will next explore how different aspects of the universe impact life on earth.

As music played in the room, the middle schooler’s calmly circulated, examining each other’s work, adding to their notes, and deepening their understanding of the solar system. For one student, the learning is just one part of what he likes about Mr. Hinson’s science class.

“I think science is interesting, but I also like that we get to be active, and walk around, and build things. I like doing projects and making real things.”

It is this focus both on the complex science and the understanding of middle school students that makes Mr. Hinson’s class such an exciting place to be at Charleston Charter School for Math and Science.

 Student-made pamphlets about Mars