Bainbridge Island

Partner Spotlight: IslandWood

By Lauren Sewell

Tucked away amid the trees of Bainbridge Island lives IslandWood, an organization dedicated to providing exceptional learning experiences that inspire lifelong environmental and community stewardship.

Since its founding in 2000, Islandwood has expanded into Seattle, and to get a better sense of their city programming, I chatted with Kate Bedient, Director of Urban School Programs.

One of IslandWood’s recent programs is Community Waters, a new fourth-grade science curriculum within Seattle Public Schools (SPS). For many years, SPS and IslandWood have worked closely, and Community Waters is no exception. As SPS was looking to make their science units more relevant, more local, and also include an engineering and design component required by the Next Generation Science Standards, they brought IslandWood into the conversation, and thus, the seed for Community Waters was planted.

With support from Seattle Public Utilities, the King County Wastewater Treatment Division, and Boeing  Community Waters focuses on stormwater — a visible, prevalent problem, and one that aligns well with fourth-grade learning standard s. While there are many aspects to stormwater, this unit specifically focuses on flooding. And what better place for students to observe flooding than their own schoolyard? The unit begins with a neighborhood walking field trip, where students observe where and how water is moving. Even before they’re asked to identify the larger issues, students have an opportunity to share what they know about water in their own schoolyard, such as that the four-square court is too wet to use and that there’s a puddle underneath the slide. The class, equipped with a map showing schoolyard stormwater infrastructure, begins noticing storm drains on higher ground or other causes of puddles.

Photograph provided by IslandWood

Photograph provided by IslandWood

As for the engineering and design component, students are supplied with a plastic bin, sand, rocks and sediment to create an improved model of their own schoolyard. They experiment, pouring water in to see the effect. They spend time testing, optimizing, redesigning and testing again.  Will the answer be pervious pavement? A retention pond? They are tasked with a tough but relevant challenge.

IslandWood staff works closely with SPS teachers; they engage in planning sessions, help train, solicit feedback, accompany teachers around the schoolyard and initially, some IslandWood instructors taught lessons. Moreover, IslandWood and SPS work closely to create a professional learning community where everyone can come back together to collaborate on what is working and where improvements should be made.

During our conversation, Kate emphasized how integral teachers are to the success of this program. They are the real partners, and she acknowledges that there are some teachers for whom stormwater is a completely new topic, as well as many who have been fierce advocates for the unit. From the beginning, IslandWood has encouraged teachers to share their voices in the process. By offering feedback, creating relationships with staff and sending in student work, teachers strengthen Curriculum Waters, and IslandWood’s work can keep growing, adapting, and improving.

Before wrapping up our discussion, Kate elaborated on the inequality historically prevalent in the field of science education. For a topic like stormwater infrastructure, conversations have tended to be in a white space or from a Western approach. IslandWood is self-reflecting and asking themselves, “how are we really thinking about designing solutions and solving problems outside of that mindset? How are we incorporating various perspectives that have been historically left out?” They are putting the energy into thinking about how they be more inclusive. It takes looking deep into our own past, history and biases, but it also takes the ability to look forward. Kate summed up the goals of IslandWood aptly: “we are continually thinking more broadly about how we spark change in communities and schools and school districts around solving environmental problems through collaboration and equity-oriented learning.”


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© Kevin Arnold