Sometimes school is all about textbooks and lectures. And sometimes circumstances deliver a ready-made learning opportunity to town.
Whether it’s been biology, chemistry, language arts, social studies or math, teachers in many local schools have incorporated the Gold King Mine spill into their classwork. Students have traveled up to Silverton or walked over to the banks of the Animas River, written letters and calculated linear equations.
“Every year, they’ve done the invertebrate study and pretty much gotten the same results. ... This year, we got to see how much of the aquatic life was killed by the spill,” said Escalante Middle School seventh-grader Paige Ammeran, about her grade’s Animas River project.
Their science teacher, Jenny Lavelle, said her students were most surprised by all the insects that were in the river.
“The river quality has been fair to good the last two years, and it was fair to good this year,” she said. “We saw a good range of biodiversity, and the majority of macro-invertebrates we found were pollution intolerant, so that’s a good sign.”
In their language arts and social studies classes with Dominic Schiavone, the students have been looking at the spill from a different angle.
“They started by thinking it’s all the (Environmental Protection Agency’s) fault, it’s all the mining industry’s fault,” he said. “Now those opinions are backing off, and they’re looking at all the facts. There wasn’t an ‘aha!’ moment, more like an ‘oh’ moment, when they realized it’s complex and began thinking there is no solution. Eventually, I hope they’ll go on to see there needs to be a balance.”
The students in Hannah Squire’s fourth-grade class at Animas Valley Elementary School started with different perspectives on the spill – geology, math, environmental, health, business, Native American – and expanded their studies to regional water issues.
The project culminated with the use of reading, writing, research and communication skills to take action on a water-related issue after studying state and governmental structure to determine who might be a decision-maker on that issue.
Jeta Fox selected Gov. John Hickenlooper to receive her letter, asking him to “help citizens change their attitude about water,” and conserve.
“It would be very hard to be you,” she concluded. “I understand that you have many responsibilities, but please just take this into thought!”
Designing a math lesson around the spill was a challenge Durango High School teachers Dan Zalbowitz and Donna Thormalen took on. Faculty for the Base Camp Small Learning Community used expeditionary learning methods to teach exponential equations.
“We were looking for data, and I remembered seeing a graph that showed the exponential growth as the plume came through town,” Zalbowitz said. “We did some modeling and wrote an equation to fit the data as the plume decayed. The students were definitely more engaged and interested, because it was something in their hometown.”
Over at the Big Picture High School, Emily Rypkema’s advisory group partnered with the Mountain Studies Institute on another macro-invertebrate study. One student took on a bigger project, focusing on the mining industry.
“She looked at the governmental aspects,” Rypkema said, “and mining regulations in the U.S. compared to other countries. I had been teaching using the Missionary Ridge Fire and its ecological system, but they were 3 then, and it’s not applicable anymore.”
Did evaluating a real-world incident in their own town make a difference in learning?
“Sometimes it gets boring in the classroom,” Escalante seventh-grader Wyett Holman said. “But even kids who don’t like to learn in the classroom had fun. We got to see the bug, feel the bug, feel like it’s all true.”