Science and social studies meet in new curriculum

Jay Walls and some of his students from Pender Harbour made a presentation to the board of trustees from School District No. 46 on Nov. 18. Pictured from left: Walls, Lauryn Young, Rachel Wilson, Lenna Ito, Trinity Goodsell, Michelle Fielding, and Matthew Phillips.   - Photo courtesy SD46

A locally grown curriculum connecting students to their environment, their community and their political system was praised by school board chair Betty Baxter during the Nov. 18 school board meeting where the innovative curriculum was discussed.

At the beginning of the meeting, Pender Harbour Elementary Secondary School teacher Jay Walls presented the highlights of his award-winning curriculum, dubbed The Plight of the Sakinaw Salmon, with some of the students who took the course. It was a place-based study that started with a genuine concern for the well-being of the Sakinaw salmon and ended with letters to politicians and a trip to the legislature in Victoria to fight for the survival of the species.

Students saw first-hand the dwindling salmon returns in their area, talked with local biologists, conducted field studies and spoke with the local Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) advisor who let them know the Coast’s only DFO office was going to be shut down.

Worried the closure would further hurt the Sakinaw salmon, which is considered an endangered species, students penned their concerns in letters to the prime minister.

“We have been discussing about how the government has decided to shut down all the fisheries offices on the Coast. Without the help of Grant McBain, we believe that the Sakinaw salmon will become extinct and will no longer exist,” student Lenna Ito read from her letter during the Nov. 18 school board meeting.

“We refuse to allow or to accept the determination. Without the DFO there will be no one to help the Sakinaw salmon survive.”

West Vancouver- Sunshine Coast - Sea to Sky Country member of Parliament John Weston and Powell River - Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons came to speak with students during their study that culminated this year with a trip to the legislature.

Just before students left on that trip they presented a petition to Weston calling for the reopening of the Coast’s only DFO office.

Once in Victoria they sat in on a session where Simons introduced them and explained their mission to save the Sakinaw salmon. Their effort drew applause.

“These students identified an issue and took appropriate steps to advocate for a change in government policy,” Simons told Coast Reporter this week, noting the students were, “excellent ambassadors for the Sunshine Coast.”

“The impact of weakening rules protecting biodiversity will be felt mostly by future generations, so learning to advocate for better policy now, and being part of raising awareness about a current issue are important skills. While unfortunately we have not been able to change the federal government’s ill-advised decision to close our DFO office in Pender, they won’t stop trying to protect the Sakinaw salmon. I hope the message they get is that they can be involved even before they can vote.”

Walls said his students received that message loud and clear, adding that they learned “how their voice in society can be as powerful as the science knowledge that transformed their understanding of the ecology in their local community setting.”

Student Michelle Fielding agreed.

“We got to see our words in action,” she said. “Mr. Walls taught our class leadership and most importantly the impact we can have.”

Walls’ program was recognized by the David Suzuki Foundation for its innovative approach to environmental advocacy, won a $2,500 environmental award and garnered him a national science teaching award as well.

The novel program that brings science and social studies together in a meaningful way for students was praised by the school board on Nov. 18.

“It’s clear that it’s been a huge success and I know that every single person around this table wants to see more of that and wants to see teachers enabled to take those pilots and go a few steps further,” Baxter said on behalf of the board. “We’re hoping this will be the beginning of a whole bunch of similar projects.”

Note: And indeed it already has, as The Jellyfish Project’s own home eco-audit, a grade 6 – 12 sustainable learning resource, will be ready for schools across Canada in the Winter of 2016.

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