Kevin Poltorak, a seventh and eighth-grade science teacher in Dennis Township, shows off the school garden. He said the students enjoy the time outdoors, while he sees lessons taking hold due to practical application.

DENNISVILLE – It can be tough getting students excited about learning. Kevin Poltorak, a seventh and eighth-grade science teacher, in Dennis Township, found it can help if they get their hands dirty.

Poltorak launched a program in sustainability as an elective, and often incorporates environmental issues into his classes. 

For the past few years, students have raised outdoor gardens within their school’s courtyard, getting hands-on experience while learning about photosynthesis, biology, and other science topics.

This year, students could also sign up for a gardening elective, which is featured in a new series of programs for a free period based on the students’ interests.

“We talked about what sustainability is and simple ways that you can achieve it, and the ways in which our school goes about trying to be as sustainable as possible,” Poltorak said.

Students created compost buckets out of steel coffee cans with lids. Participating teachers have taken them home to add fruit peels, apple cores and other scraps from vegetables, which will eventually break down and help fertilize the school garden beds.

“It’s pretty small scale right now. It’s something brand new,” he added. “Eventually, it would be nice to make it more of a school-wide thing.”

Compostable items could one day be collected in the cafeteria, he said, for a larger-scale project.

Even at a small scale, he said, working outside and seeing how water, soil and seeds come together gives his students a deeper understanding than they could get from lectures and reading.

“They love being in the garden,” he said.

Creating Close Connections

The Alliance for New Jersey Environmental Education works under a theory, said ANJEE President Mike Chodroff: You won’t save what you don’t love. Or put another way, people will work to protect things they care about.

Part of getting people to care about the environment is teaching them about it, and the kinds of direct methods Poltorak is bringing to his classroom is a great way to do that, Chodroff said in a recent interview. 

“We encouraged experimental learning, so that students are connected to what they are learning,” he said.

ANJEE makes connections, Chodroff said, between teachers and school districts and other resources. He said the organization also works with environmental educators outside of the school system, such as the Nature Center, in Cape May, the Wetlands Institute and the Cape May County Zoo.

One trend Chodroff finds inspiring is a push from students for more environmental education. Some have launched environmental clubs on their campuses or have lobbied for more classes connected to environmental sciences.

He sees Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as an inspiration to young people around the world. Her campaign, calling for immediate action on climate issues, drew international attention and landed her on the cover of Time magazine, as the 2019 Person of the Year.

Chodroff sees her and other young activists as an example of what the next generation can accomplish. He also pointed to student activists in marginalized communities. Activists have, for years, worried that environmentalism was seen as a concern for rich white people. Chodroff sees that narrative changing with the younger generation.

“There are just so many incredible kids that are recognizing that change starts in their community,” he said. 

They also see real-world impacts of environmental issues, in air and water quality in their communities. He expects that aspect to be a big thrust for his organization in 2020.

Sustainable Lessons across the Board

Dr. Nancy Hudanich has taught math. Now the superintendent of Cape May County Technical School, she knows it can be tough for many students to grasp its abstract concepts. However, when students learn the slope equation for a roof with the understanding they will have to use that data to install solar panels, or they dig into the math behind gear ratios when they will later apply those results to a motorbike, the connection is more concrete.

“They’re seeing the need of it, so it’s real-world learning,” Hudanich said.

In a future piece in this series, we’ll look in more detail at how Cape May Tech incorporates sustainability into education. According to Hudanich, concepts and practices in sustainability are part of every class in the district.

“We have sustainability embedded in every career and educational program,” she said.

Keeping Traditions, Creating New Ones

For many of his students, Poltorak said, the idea of getting food from the land is not new.

“We’re a farming community,” he said. Not every family has a farm, of course, but many of his students’ parents have gardens at home, and family members who fish and hunt, he said. There is nothing novel in concepts like locally sourced food and planning for the needs of future generations.

Poltorak said he has been able to introduce the students to concepts they had not considered.

In the corner of his classroom stands a multi-level hydroponic growing system, which recycles water past the plant roots. The system uses less water than other growing methods, and also offers a means of growing food close to demand. That means less fuel used to transport and deliver the food.

With a little more than 6,000 people spread over close to 65 square miles, Dennis Township is a rural area, even by Cape May County standards. 

Encompassing numerous small farms, preserved wetlands and the dense woods of Belleplain State Forest, along with residential development and the historic village of Dennisville, Dennis township was the first municipality carved out of the original division of Cape May County between Upper, Middle, and Lower townships, predating the borough that was to become Cape May by several decades.

There are two schools for Dennis Township’s kindergarten-through-eighth grade district, with a total of 564 students, according to recent statistics. Students then attend Middle Township High School or Cape May County Technical High School.

While Cape May County fills in the summer, the county is relatively empty, for most of the year, at least when compared to the rest of the state. With more than 8.9 million people, New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the union, with extensive urban and industrial areas.

Even in urban districts, Chodroff said, there is usually room for a few plants or a corner garden to give students hands-on growing experience. He said his organization is looking for more student voices to help lead efforts on sustainability in the 2020s.

“What’s really great that’s going on in schools is that students are very aware now of challenges we will face in the future,” he said. “Many are being very proactive, starting environmental clubs and getting more involved, even asking for more environmental courses.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project. It was originally reported by Bill Barlow for the Cape May County Herald, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.

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