1. The Education Gradebook

New elective course at Winding Waters focuses on the environment

WEEKI WACHEE — A new class at Winding Waters K-8 School could lead to something really big. Maybe even a dinosaur.

The first-year elective is a critical thinking class that focuses on environmental science, and sixth-grader Gracie Wason, 11, is a member.

"I like it," Gracie said. "I like a lot of animals, just all animals. I want to become a paleontologist."

And that's where the dinosaur comes in. Gracie suggested she might be the first person to bring back a dinosaur, a la Jurassic Park. She assuredly explained that it would be a herbivore, though, so no worries.

Her teacher, Julie Brady, also teaches sixth-grade science. The environmental science class, though, is open to grades 6 to 8. Brady said principal Janet Cerro wanted to focus on environmental studies because there was a need for it and to prepare students for a higher-level class offered at Weeki Wachee High School.

Brady said she wants the class to be led mainly by students. She wants students to select, discuss and research projects important to them.

To begin the year, Brady had her students participate in some team-building exercises to create bonds, particularly because the class is a mixture of three grade levels. She asked the class to choose the activities. An example was using pasta to build towers as tall as possible that had to stand for at least five seconds.

"We voted on it and did it the next day" Brady said.

"All the team building really made a big difference," she said. "That was the goal — to build trust so we can work on projects for the rest of the year."

Brady was pleased, too, that the activities tied in well with this year's school theme, Teamwork.

One project the students decided to tackle was the campus' outdoor planting boxes. This is a work in progress, which began by using identification keys and iPads to determine the plants that are there.

Seventh-grader Bailey Tackett, 12, said the class plans to fill the boxes with Florida species.

"I've always been interested in learning about the Earth itself," Bailey said, "and I'm especially interested in planting."

Seventh-grader Brady Cook, 12, is interested in the natural world and selected this class because of that.

"I want to be a scientist when I grow up," he said.

Eighth-grader William Lafranchi, 13, is interested in becoming a marine biologist. He mentioned another project the class just started: to teach elementary-age students about Florida's endangered species. William is particularly worried about the Florida panther.

Brady said her students divided into groups to choose the animals they wanted research and figure out the best way to reach elementary students. They plan to get the word out to the elementary school children with posters in the hallways. They want to get the younger students interested enough to ask their teachers to let the older students visit their classrooms.

If it works out and they are invited, they will prepare lessons. Brady said the students hope to use PowerPoint presentations and maybe Jeopardy-style questions for assessment.

"They're thinking big," she said.

Brady wants the children to develop problem-solving skills in the new class.

"The goal is for them to look at real-world problems and see that they have the power to see change," she said.

Looking forward, she named some other possible projects the class may do in the months to come. They want to study things that are Florida-connected.

"Then they'll have a buy-in," she said.

Besides endangered specials, the class has talked about pollution and mineral resources, with the possibility of a field trip to Cemex.