Collins, a fifth-and-sixth-grade teacher at Reading (Vermont) Elementary School and an alumna of AUNEâ€™s Educating for Sustainability MEd concentration, had just attended a sustainability institute. There, a presentation inspired her to take service learning at her small rural school to a higher level. But first, she needed a problem to fire up her students.
â€œThat was the hardest thing, it turned out â€“ finding a good problem. I needed something that was just the right size,â€ she said. â€œToo often teachers give problems that they always know the answer to. It was important to me that it be an actual real-world problem.â€
One day last summer Collins was walking her golden retriever past the school, when the dog waded into a sprawling patch of poison ivy. She realized that she had complained about the poison ivy for eleven years, ever since she had come to Reading. â€œNo one has been able to solve that problem, because it borders an ecologically sensitive area, and chemicals were out of the question.â€
The next day she asked her class, all six of them, a question: How can poison ivy be safely eradicated? Their reply: Blank looks.
Each day, she simply asked the same question. â€œAfter two weeks of no answers, they finally began to get embarrassed,â€ she said. Possible solutions trickled in. Collins asked them to analyze each solution for practicality and costâ€”their budget was $12 from the student activities fund. They considered black plastic, boiling water, vinegar and salt, none of which fit the criteria. Finally one student asked â€œDo goats eat poison ivy?â€
Analysis showed that, if the goats were borrowed, it was affordable. â€œWithin a week, we had three goats,â€ Collins said. â€œThat was the easiest part.â€
Â A Town Crazy for Goats
The town went â€œgoat crazy,â€ Collins said. People in the community donated a calf hutch, fencing, and services such as an agronomist, a veterinarian, and a forester who removed some poisonous pin cherry trees. â€œA good project is one that has community support and where everyone is excited,â€ Collins said.
Reading Elementary has preschoolers, who had no hesitation about grasping a live electric fence, so the students had to figure out a way to block off the electric fence, and do a safety education campaign. Â Then, on the job for six weeks, Izzy, Happy, and Sadie, the three Boer goats, ate all the visible poison ivy.
The project continued to reap academic benefits. The students learned grant-writing skills, recently winning a grant for $981.93 They also wrote a 12-page application for the Governorâ€™s Environmental Award, which they have yet to hear about. And Reading Elementary was nominated as one of three U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools in Vermont, the only small, rural school. The winners will be announced in April.
AUNEâ€™s EFS Program Helps Her Focus
AUNEâ€™s Educating for Sustainability MEd concentration gave Collins the foundation for the community approach to the project and for the Reading schoolâ€™s new focus.Â â€œAUNE taught me to seek opportunities for collaboration with the local community on projects and problem-seeking and solving,â€ she said.Â â€œThe program gave me tools to share with colleagues as we work to build a stronger, more vibrant, and sustainable school.Â Collectively we redefined our school’s focus and mission to be one centered on educating for sustainability: â€˜Educating students to make decisions with an understanding of the interrelatedness of social equity, the economy and the environment, for today and in the future.â€™”
Meanwhile, the students will co-present â€œGoldilocks and the Three Goats: Service Learning and Engineering Solutionsâ€ with Collins on April 4, at theÂ Vermont Science Teachers Association Conference in Fairlee, Vermont.
â€œItâ€™s a project that keeps on growing and giving,â€ Collins said.
So are the goats, who will be back this spring.