Interviewed by Emily Freehling
Learning isn’t a one-way transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. It’s an experience that changes the way a student understands the world. Fredericksburg Academy has provided a curriculum based on this comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach to learning for students from preschool through 12th grade since 1992. Even as the school works through the safety protocols necessary to hold in-person classes five days a week amid the Covid-19 pandemic, FA continues to forge partnerships with the larger community that make hands-on learning opportunities possible for students. This year, Environmental Science students will expand water quality monitoring work the school has done for years in a partnership with Virginia Tech and Friends of the Rappahannock that will ultimately help state and regional groups advocate for a healthier Chesapeake Bay.
As November’s Expert, the Fredericksburg Academy team talk about how this project exemplifies the schools’ constant quest to help students connect their learning to the larger world around them.
Q: How are Fredericksburg Academy students involved in tracking water quality in our region?
David Steinberger, Upper and Middle School Science Teacher: It’s important to us that our students understand that science isn’t just a fixed set of facts that you memorize and spit out on a test. Science is a process, a way of using precise and proven methods to investigate and understand the world around us. Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) approached me four years ago with a need for more data on the local watershed. Good data can help groups like FOR and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay advocate for funding and policy needed to protect the Bay.
I became certified to collect this data, and I train students each year to do it. For the past three years, my students in the Middle and Upper schools have collected monthly samples and data for Deep Run, a creek that runs through the FA campus and flows to the Rappahannock.
Q: What makes this a valuable experience for students?
David: This is scientific work that has a real impact in our community. It’s not a one-and-done lab, and that helps students make the connection between the work they do in the classroom and the real world, which fosters lasting learning and a love of learning. It gives them a sense of what real scientific work is like. Students are surprised at how precise some of the measurements have to be to be accurate and useful to government agencies. For many students, it’s their first time being exposed to the idea of precision and repeatability in testing.
Q: What discoveries have you made through this work?
David: It’s remarkable to all of us the amount of debris and pollution that we see when we take the samples. After a big rainstorm, when debris from all of the surrounding area has washed into the creek, it helps drive home to the students how an area that feels very natural and wooded is still impacted by the development around it.
Unfortunately, we have also had frequent positive tests for Coliform bacteria, and I point out to the students that a sewer main runs parallel to the stream. I think it’s shocking to them that it runs so close to the creek. It’s eye-opening to them to see how land is used and the different impacts those uses have on it.
Q: How are you expanding the program this year?
David: We have been working with Buck Cox, an environmental engineer and entrepreneur who is working with Virginia Tech, the University of Mary Washington and FOR to create an ecological park on the Rappahannock River. This year, his hope is for our students to do expanded water quality testing. Right now we are measuring for dissolved oxygen, pH, water temperature and depth, Coliform bacterial counts and turbidity (or murkiness due to small particles). With this partnership, we hope to also measure for nitrogen and phosphorous levels, and sample for macroinvertebrates. These new measurements can help us track whether stormwater runoff is negatively impacting a waterway, a problem that can have negative effects on fish and wildlife downstream and ultimately in the Bay.
We also want to get off campus and sample Hazel Run, another important tributary to the Rappahannock that is under pressure from recent development. This will give students a better idea of how a small creek on their campus ties into the bigger picture of the Bay watershed, while also providing important scientific data to groups seeking to protect the Bay.
Q: The current school year is posing challenges for schools of all sizes as they adapt to the need to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Is FA able to keep offering these kinds of hands-on, project-based learning experiences amid the current limitations?
Karen Moschetto, Head of School: We really don’t see limitations. Learning has never stopped at FA. We closed school on March 12 when mandated by the state, and were up and running March 16 with virtual learning. We offered enriching experiences on campus through our summer camp program, and have been in school in-person five days a week since Aug. 19. We are closely following all of the CDC guidelines for school re-openings and have worked very closely with the Rappahannock Area Health District to ensure the safety of our faculty, staff and students.
But just being in a classroom is never enough for us. We are constantly looking for ways to connect learning to a bigger picture. We want our students to understand why they are learning something, and to see how it connects to the rest of the world. We are making adjustments to keep everybody healthy amid the pandemic, but if you drive by our campus in the middle of the day, there are students out in the woods, students out measuring things on campus, students engaging in hands-on learning just like any other year. Faculty have really reimagined their programs and thought about ways to do things differently so that we can keep moving forward while we are also wearing masks, social distancing and keeping things clean and safe.
Q: How are you able to work these kinds of experiences into your curriculum?
Karen: It’s a natural part of our program here. Being small is incredibly helpful. Our curriculum is not tied to an end goal of a standardized test. We can easily pivot and mobilize to take advantage of an opportunity to learn from an expert or conduct college-level research. We are only limited by our imagination.
Q: Why are partnerships that involve groups such as Friends of the Rappahannock and Virginia Tech important—both for learning and for the community as a whole?
Mikel Manchester, Virginia Cooperative Extension: If students have some part in protecting, restoring and sustaining the current water quality environmental issues, they will be more likely to engage in future initiatives. If human progress is responsible for undoing nature, citizens, especially our youth, can be helpful in restoring the health and natural beauty on the Rappahannock River.
Many programs don’t succeed due to lack of support. Actions that are supported by community volunteers engage local citizens and provide a creative resource to promote positive environmental change.
Karen: It’s such an important component for students to see that learning you are doing can be part of changes in your community, state or country. That’s what’s so great about being part of a study like David is conducting. It’s also important for students to be able to engage with professionals who are doing the work they are learning about. These are important connections that build a life-long love of learning.
To learn more, visit fredericksburgacademy.org. Stay tuned in November for a video interview that will talk more about FA’s approach to learning on the Fredericksburg Parent & Family Facebook and YouTube channels.