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UNIONVILLE, Ind. (AP) — Unionville Elementary School is growing something new.

You can see it when you stop by the school: Trays full of seedlings sprouting on classroom windowsills. Potatoes growing roots in cups of water. Large shelves bearing gardening tools and seed packets near the back door. Teachers and students holding class outside, on the hill, by the garden boxes, under the sheltered “learning lab” on the playground and in the miniature amphitheater with wooden benches by the pond. Students planting flowers and vegetables, or watching and sketching the trees, writing their observations in science notebooks.

While schools across the country emphasize STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — Unionville staff are rolling out a new curriculum of their own. They call it EARTH: Environment, Art, Resources, Technology and Health. The curriculum is heavily inspired by STEM but brings in elements of Unionville’s natural, rural surroundings.

As other MCCSC schools have added special school-wide programs — Fairview’s performing arts program, Grandview’s STEM certification, Summit and Clear Creek’s dual-language immersion programs — principal Lily Albright wanted to highlight what Unionville had to offer as well.

After much brainstorming and reviewing their school’s unique assets, the idea for EARTH emerged.

“It really covered everything we’d been discussing, and all of those topics and strands were able to be packaged in this easy-to-understand acronym,” she said.

In many ways, the curriculum harnesses things Unionville has been doing for years. They compost and recycle in the school cafeteria, use the outdoor spaces often and go for hikes on Unionville’s 18 acres. The fishing club catches fish in the school’s pond from a little dock built for class purposes. They use different kinds of art, including quilting, to visually represent what they’re learning. The school teaches digital citizenship and coding, as well as healthy living and good lifestyle choices.

EARTH puts a renewed focus on those elements, increases the number of science experiences and puts an outdoor, environmental twist on it all.

“It’s about appreciating and understanding what’s going on right here in our own backyard, and applying that as we think about the world and our place in the world,” Albright said.

Practically implemented, the curriculum combines several of the EARTH elements into cohesive assignments, or assignments that last throughout the year and tie into other components. For instance, one Wednesday, Dana Frederick’s kindergarten class used Venn diagrams to talk about the differences between guppies and goldfish. On a table in the center of the room stood three little tanks, where students could peer at live specimens through magnifying glasses before writing down observations in their science notebooks.

In the art room, Allen Zielinski shepherded students through a “meal collage.” In their health curriculum, the kids have been learning about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables; in science, they’ve studied the germination of seeds and life cycle of plants.

“We’ll be reinforcing the idea of eating as many different colorful foods as you can, as well as the color wheel,” he said. Each pigment had to be represented by a colorful food, like carrots for orange and strawberries for red. Other art activities have included topographical map sculptures. Later, Zielinski hopes to use a sculpture activity and the school’s green screen to have students make a stop-motion film, bringing in an element of technology as well.

Outside, some students planted lettuce in garden boxes. Students will monitor each plant’s progress in their science notebooks, and when the plants are full grown, students will harvest them for a school-wide salad. On wooden benches beside the pond, third-graders used their natural surroundings to inspire similes for a writing assignment.

“The pond is as green as a clover!” ”The trees are as tall as giants!” ”The bark is as brown as my eyes!”

Each student has a science notebook they keep throughout the year. The pages are filled with sketches, diagrams, the results of science experiments and creative writing assignments, as well as pressed leaves and other outdoor specimens. When they graduate, this year’s kindergartners will have seven notebooks chronicling their observations and thoughts from their time at Unionville.

Albright said the curriculum would take about five years to fully develop and implement. To help her and Unionville teachers with that goal, Albright is assembling an EARTH Community Advisory Board made of up local experts in each of the program’s areas of focus. In addition to representatives from Sycamore Land Trust and the Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department, she has asked people from Indiana University Health, the IU School of Public Health, local farmers and community members for their input.

“What are the most critical outcomes when it comes to environmental education?” Albright offered as an example. “What would an expert in their field say we should really be focusing on?”

She hopes, one day, that EARTH might be the kind of curriculum other schools will want to implement and can get certified in, just as STEM is now.

In the meantime, the curriculum infuses the days and imaginations of Unionville students. At the end of recess one day, two third-grade boys came charging up, calling for Albright’s attention. Owen Wright opened his cupped hands to reveal a toad squatting in his palms.

“I named him Merkle!” he declared proudly.

Albright stopped on the steps to look and ask the students questions about their new friend. They answered eagerly. How did they know he was a toad rather than a frog? What was his habitat like? Who were his predators? Why was his name Merkle?

“Doesn’t he just look like a Merkle?” asked Karson Mullins, exasperated, before the pair scampered off to find a safe place to put Merkle down.

Just a moment of curiosity you might find on any playground, Albright said — at least, any playground near places a toad might live. But at Unionville, every outdoor opportunity provides a chance for that EARTH curriculum to come into play.

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Source: The (Bloomington) Herald Times

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Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com