Verrado students

Verrado students took a field trip to the Hassayampa River as part of Project WET on March 23. (Photo courtesy Verrado High School)

At Buckeye’s Verrado High School, students in the Advanced Placement Environmental Science class are learning about environmental dilemmas and creating insightful solutions.

Newly formatted classes combine college lectures, real-world engagement through field trips, and the opportunity to enact ideas to solve environmental problems.

Verrado teacher Brandon Watkins explained he takes education further than the classroom to expose students to real experiences. It’s part of the school’s focus on problem-based learning, which introduces students to existing problems to encourage them to produce items with true impact.

“I’m really an advocate for getting students out into the environment,” said Watkins, the school’s AP environmental science and biology teacher.

This year, students explored organic farming versus conventional farming, toured a dairy farm, and learned about conservation efforts at Wildlife World Zoo. They also visited Hassayampa River Preserve in partnership with the Aqua STEM Program, a part of The University of Arizona’s Arizona Project WET, where they served as mentor scientists helping students from Verrado Middle School assess the health of the preserve.

“It helps the older students develop confidence in teaching and presentation skills,” explained Sandra Hurlbut, community coordinator for the Aqua STEM Program. “And it gives the younger students a mentor who’s closer to them in age –  a person who they may be able to relate to a bit better.”

Andrea Santizo, a student in Watkins’ AP class, found the excursions eye opening and said, “It’s shown me how making small changes can reduce the damage we are making on our environment.”

AP student Sofia Aguilar said the field trips have been great experiences.

“The names and terms on textbooks did not truly become a reality until I came face to face with hundreds of actual cows,” she said.

Also new this year is a partnership with ASU’s School of Sustainability. The ASU Sustainability School’s program transforms the high school classroom into a college lecture hall through monthly ASU instructor-led courses in which students earn three college credits.

“That’s something super cool that nobody else in the West Valley does and it really sets us apart not only as a school but with our commitment to sustainability,” Watkins explained.

ASU instructor Colin Tetreault, who teaches the course at Verrado High School, calls the program “a groundbreaking opportunity for students to take college courses, gain advanced knowledge, and be better prepared for college and beyond.”

Watkins said students get really excited about the topics and are eager to keep the environmental conversation going through outreach. They aim to educate their peers through the school’s recycling club and the community through the school’s One World, One Verrado Night which took place April 24. The event was an opportunity for students schoolwide to share their research projects on a variety of topics.

“There are some really, really cool ones,” praised Watkins of his students’ projects, which include biodegradable water bottles, plastic water bottles repurposed into a greenhouse, a 5-gallon water jug biosphere demonstrating the effects of global warming, and biodegradable flower-seed pots being sold to benefit the restoration of a local ecosystem.

As for what he hopes students get out of the course, Watkins said, “I would love for students to be more conscientious about their sustainability: what they’re doing, how they’re affecting the ecosystem, animals, water cycles, and other people.” And he hopes they think about what they can do to be advocates for the environment.