Turlock fifth-grade teacher wins national award for environmental science education

08/20/2014 4:50 PM

08/20/2014 11:40 PM

On the first full day of class for Walnut Elementary School fifth-graders, curiosity about the solar system erupts like an uncapped geyser.

How did water come to Earth? Why do we have different weather?

How did living creatures get to Earth? How did God make the Earth? Where did the atmosphere come from?

What makes the sun so hot? How big is it? How did it get there?

Scribbling furiously on the board as kids shout out topics they want to study is Bret Sutterley, one of 17 teachers awarded the 2014 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Education by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Getting the award was cool, he said, because he wanted to know how his program stacked up.

Now he knows, and it’s back to doing what he does best.

Beside him, drawing in the questions, is fellow fifth-grade teacher Dave Sutton. The two men team-teach science, with Tuesday’s lesson drawing out what the 10- and 11-year-olds know already and deciding what they want to learn. Exploring those topics will wind past every fifth-grade science standard – count on it.

“I think you can see, looking at these, some questions we could answer in five minutes. Others are a lifelong journey,” Sutterley told the class. “Some things we won’t be able to wrap our heads around.”

That exploration will tread carefully, however, when discussing creation of the cosmos. As one student shouts “God!” and “Adam and Eve!” to the scientific questions raised, some of the teacher challenges of discussion-based learning become clear. Sutton and Sutterley, however, move the class forward with a practiced hand.

“We are not here to change your opinions, but we are going to give you the best scientific information,” Sutterley tells the class.

While the packed double class talks in groups, Sutton said students do bring up religious views during the solar section of fifth-grade science. “They will come up,” he said, adding that a typical response might be, “That’s a great thing to investigate.”

“This is a really interesting year,” Sutterley said, noting that social studies will cover treatment of American Indians as the West was won, slavery and the Civil War.

Fifth-graders will hear about those controversies from many perspectives, he said. “This is the age when they open their eyes.”

Those open eyes will see the grasslands near Los Banos, count sand crabs on a Monterey beach and trek the woods of Yosemite this year, field trips that Walnut’s Discovery math and science magnet program has donations and grants to pay for. They will ride pint-size, solar-powered cars and study wind turbines Sutterley also bought with grant funds.

He will have $2,000 more to spend on the school and $2,000 for his own training from the EPA award. Sutterley said he has not made any decisions about how that will be spent. Thanks to generous retired professors and a knack for grant writing, he said, “every cool thing I’ve wanted, I’ve been able to get.”

The cool things he gets revolve around environmental education, his passion through 35 years of teaching. Tree plantings, recycled-material art projects, a school garden and the Walnut Energy Center, with its solar array and wind turbine, were part of his winning application for the national award. For decades, he has had classes raise salmon, releasing them into area rivers.

“It’s the right age to discover they are citizens of the planet. I want to make them stewards of the earth,” Sutterley said.

Walnut, which also houses the Renaissance performing arts magnet program, has some schoolwide events Sutton and Sutterley spearhead, said Principal Mark Holmes. Go Green week and an energy fair are annual highlights, he said.

“The math-science magnet has an emphasis on environmental education,” he said.

Back in Room B11, Olivia Moore is looking forward to it. “I love chemistry,” she said. Beside her, Jordyn Piro said she loves math.

Classmate Jack Paslay said he wants to learn more about science, especially the solar system.

A fifth-grader with his hand raised forgets his question when called on. “How? What? … oh, God,” he ends with a sigh.

“Different topic,” the two men say in unison, grin, and then move on to the next waving hand.

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