Chris Leonhard on teaching science and LETS

Chris Leonhard has been teaching science at LAS for five years and has been Science Department Head for three. To read the long edit of this interview, click here.

Chris Leonhard and Inara

When you first came to Leysin, did you start using the outdoors in your classes right away?

The very first day of class we went outside. It was an opportunity to get to know the kids individually as we walked a trail. I now take the kids outside as much as possible. You need to take advantage of where you live when you teach any kind of science.

Are the kids more engaged in science as a subject when they’re doing stuff outdoors?

Definitely. Sometimes it starts as a negative, like “they’re cold” or something, but then it turns into something funny. From there it starts to become fun. You get some kids who really start to love it. Not all the kids, of course [laughs], but some kids really start to like it. Nature is an exotic place for modern teenagers who are always attached to their electronic devices. For a lot of them it’s the first time they’ve gone for a walk in the woods.

How has your use of the outdoors evolved since you started here?

It’s a lot more organized now. We are getting to where we know how we want to do things. Before, we’d go out and see if we could keep the kids from just turning it into playtime. But as we learn how to do things and we put together materials, it starts to become more useful.

Is it turning into citizen science?

We’re spending so much time trying to do things the right way, that what’s being collected is starting to become useful. When you’re going out with kids and they’re not paying attention, when they see it just as a one-hour effort and they can forget about it afterward, then they don’t take it seriously and the result is that the data is not as good. As they learn that this is important, they care more about the data and do a better job.

Could you tell me about your ants project?

We have the local wood ants and they build these large mounds. We’re first surveying where they all are and then we’ll actually start researching things like, why do the ants choose, for example, to put a mound where they do? Is it sunlight, is it temperature, is it availability of a food source, maybe the steepness of a slope? There could be any number of factors. So we’re going to look at those things and see if there’s a pattern. You can imagine a whole series of questions like that. Then you look at all the biotic and abiotic factors in the environment and try to decide why things are happening the way they are. One of the great thrills about studying ants is that the kids get so much out of it. They often start with an “ick factor,” like “Oh yuck, there’s an ant on me!” and they jump up and down to shake it off. But then they end up laughing.

Are kids learning something bigger than ants?

For one thing, they’re seeing connections. We’re not talking only about the ants themselves. We’re talking about why ants are important. For example, they cycle of carbon and nitrogen in the ecosystem, which is extremely important for the growth of other plants. This leads to insects and birds, and soon we’re talking about the whole ecosystem. It’s important for the kids to understand how everything connects to everything else.

Extensive research shows that having kids involved and making it important to them will help them learn better. So if we’re studying science, not just by talking about it, but by actually going out and doing it, they’re learning the scientific process better. This hands-on education is a big part of the goal.

You used LETS as the Group 4 project last year. How did that go?

The main thing is that this was the first time we were doing it. We were trying to get our feet under us and see where the big problems would be. That led to improvements between the first LETS day in the spring and the second one in the fall. Every time it will get better.

What is a Group 4 project, anyway?

Group 4 is a requirement for all science students in the IB programme. Doing a LETS study for Group 4 day is a great way for all the students across the sciences to collaborate. Normally chemistry students are doing chemistry labs and biology students are doing biology labs. But in this case the kids work together, they collaborate, they learn about teamwork. It also introduces them to some major issues, like climate change.

Does this cross-curricular approach apply beyond the sciences?

That’s the beauty of it. We’re addressing the horizontal curriculum, working across disciplines. I think the greatest problem in modern education–if I were to pick out one thing–is that there’s very little interaction between disciplines. We’re becoming more and more specialized at the expense of having well-rounded scientists who might see hidden connections. So to me the best part of this is that we’re creating students who can think cross-curricularly, who can think about how things connect to each other.

You’re planning a greenhouse for LAS. How is this good for students?

Again, it’s for hands-on learning. You’re physically doing something. The kids can see the results of manipulating variables rather than just reading about them. They can hold the results in their hands. It’s teaching the scientific method.

Without a greenhouse, you just don’t have enough space to really grow things. It’s too cold in Leysin to grow outdoors during most of the school year. This way we can grow things year round. It will be interesting to see how well we can we grow vegetables in December, for example.

What sorts of greenhouse projects do you have in mind?

Aquaponics is what interests me the most. Aquaponics is basically a closed system, so students will get to study the entire system. Maybe the fish is the most obvious place to start explaining it. You’re feeding the fish, which is the only input into the system. So you feed the fish and they give off waste in their normal everyday life. This fish waste is cycling through the aquaponics system. There’s bacteria in the system that converts the ammonium in that waste into nitrates. And nitrate is an essential fertilizer for plants. The plants suck up all the nitrates, which cleans the water for the fish. All you need is to occasionally remove some solids that don’t get broken down, and you basically have a system that can run itself and produce food with nothing more than an input of fish food. It really mimics a natural system. Of course other inputs include carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water, but those things are plentiful in Leysin.

How do you picture the greenhouse being built?

Students will be involved at every stage of the process. After we decide what and where to build, students will help put it up and set up everything inside. That’s something that I think a lot of students would enjoy participating in. It’s also a good opportunity for them to do service hours.

Do you picture a cross-section of the LAS community using it?

I sent out a survey to LAS staff. From the responses, without even considering class time from science teachers or clubs that might want to use it, we have about 50 hours a month of committed volunteer time–faculty and other staff saying that they want to contribute. Aquaponics is becoming extremely popular as a teaching tool in middle schools. Kids especially love the fish.

You’ve done a lot of professional development courses related to greenhouses.

The main one was Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Growing Power is an urban farm. They take waste vegetables from grocery stores and beer mash from breweries and mix this with wood chips from the city to make a first level of compost. They then add worms, which do their vermicomposting. Finally, the soil is put in pots to grow microgreens in an aquaponics system. My vision for LAS is a composting program that leads to vermicomposting that leads to integration into the greenhouse. Then you take the leftovers from the greenhouse and feed it to chickens, so now you’ve got eggs in addition to fish, vegetables, and microgreens–and it all comes basically from composting our kitchen and yard waste. This isn’t just a greenhouse, it’s a complete system that we’ll build. First of all, this is great for classes, for showing students how systems work and how they can harness waste to benefit something else. Systems study is a growing field of science. But also it’s great for the school. We’ll produce a whole bunch of food out of the waste that we’d have otherwise stuck in a pile somewhere or sent off. We’ll have posters in the cafeteria explaining how this works. The entire student body will learn from this and also hopefully participate.

(AI – Chris Leonhard interview 151121_short Edit 1 (1515 words))

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