The class, which runs through the end of June, shows that science and art are not mutually exclusive, according to Hillary Orzell McSherry, who teaches the class and has a masters degree in environmental policy. The class is part of an ongoing effort to bridge the gap between STEM courses and the arts.
McSherry got the idea to create the class in Monterey when she participated in a 2010 grant program by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal of the program was to get art and music teachers together to design a curriculum that encourages environmental stewardship.
McSherry said she designed her course to to fit STEAM — an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. STEAM is an adaptation of the widely popular STEM fields that injects some of the arts back into the tech-focused curriculum.
One of the guiding principles in her curriculum was to emphasize the gap between policy changes and the social change that adapts to it.
"It takes a while for people to get used to it," McSherry said, explaining that people change their habits based on personal values on the environment rather than by forceful changes in policy or laws.
She started teaching the course back in 2010 and tracked kids through surveys to see if they changed their personal values. She said that the course was very successful at not only changing how kids see their environment, but also finding ways for kids to adopt lifestyle habits and act upon their newly developed values.
Things got a little tricky for McSherry when she started teaching summer camp to a different age group. The curriculum was designed for fourth and fifth graders, and suddenly she found herself teaching kindergarteners and first graders.
"Kids at 10 years might be more analytical and scientific, but environmental science is accessible to everyone," McSherry said. "We all have a connection to our environment."
This week, students learned about the rainforest, and how it covers 7 percent of the earth's surface but holds 50 percent of all life. McSherry taught them about the different canopy layers, the animals that live there and some of the plants students might recognize — like fruits.
Then students applied their new-found knowledge to art projects. They made paintings of the floor, understory and canopy layers of the rainforest. Then they painted in all the wildlife, most of which are in the understory and canopy. They learn about the bright colors of animals in the rainforest that we don't see here — blue frogs, yellow butterflies. Through their paintings, McSherry said kids can visualize how much life is concentrated in these rainforests.
Other times, the teaching and art activity are one in the same. McSherry said she and her students will listen to and even create music, mostly folk music, that reflects the natural environment. Students listen to songs from New Zealand that use sounds that imitate the ocean waves, or percussion instruments that sound like beetles. Sometimes they play the instruments themselves, or McSherry will play songs on the keyboard.
Through this, she said students learn that indigenous people used whatever was at their disposal in the natural world to make music, and were interconnected with their environment.
McSherry said she focused on this musical aspect of the course when she taught in Monterey, but started to incorporate more visual arts when she moved her lessons over to CSMA.
She said of the hardest things about teaching the class is telling kids as young as kindergarteners about negative environmental impacts going on around the world.
"It's super challenging to teach them about the bad things going on," McSherry said. "If I teach them that forests are being burned down, they'll be worried that the forests they visit are going to be burned down."
So McSherry has a two-pronged approach: explain negative things in the least scary way and follow it up with proactive solutions. If she teaches kids about land degradation, she'll use images of dry and cracked dirt rather than dead animals to show the effect, then tell students what they can do to fix the problem.
These proactive solutions include watching the use of electricity at home, picking up trash and sending letters to people who run palm oil businesses. Because the kids are so young, McSherry said they are the most impressionable and more likely to adopt new behaviors.
McSherry said she's never felt compelled to go on a negative rant about people destroying the environment.
"The kids are too sweet and positive," McSherry said. "They're willing and ready to be empowered by what they learn."
McSherry said she also takes care not to push any sort of political agenda. She said she tries to stay scientific, and none of what she teaches is considered extreme in the scientific community.
In the future, McSherry said she'll continue to adapt her curriculum for Santa Clara County. The local curriculum focuses on building and designing tech solutions to solve problems. She said this year she'd like to capitalize on that problem-solver mentality and do a project called "design your own green tech" for kindergarteners.