By. Chris Freeman, Kellam High School

We have been wading into the waters of this new millennium for nineteen years. With this century well on its way, it’s surprising to see our education system is still focused on which 21st century skill sets students need to be competitive in this economy. In my AP Environmental Science classroom at Kellam High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the focus is squarely on the future: how do we impact the 22nd century and beyond, and what tools and technology will be needed to help us shape this future? Students need opportunities to build capacity in solving the big problems of tomorrow, and they need exposure to such opportunities today. My AP Environmental Science students engage in solving tomorrow’s problems by getting involved in collaborative, real-world community design projects.

Recently, my students dove into an exciting 22nd century collaboration to help design a living building at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center. Living buildings are certified through the Living Building Challenge, whose certification process imposes the most intensive sustainability standards for building design in the world. The Brock Environmental Center was the tenth living building in the world, and now The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Virginia Beach City Public Schools have formed a public-private partnership to create an Environmental Studies Program on the grounds of the Brock Environmental Center. Tymoff+Moss Architects were selected to construct this magnificent home for the new Environmental Studies Program and to design the building to meet the Living Building Challenge’s criteria. This forward-thinking design process is a powerful opportunity to have students engaged in this collaboration. My AP Environmental Science students are involved in the design charrette process, along with an interdisciplinary team of Iowa State University students and their professor, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture Bambi Yost. 

Our first Programming/Design Charrette event was held on March 21st of this year. My students worked with architects and administrators to outline their vision of what a 22nd century building should do for the environment: purify water, convert sunlight into energy, convert waste into fertilizer, keep its occupants healthy, and much more. Prior to this meeting, students researched other living buildings, such as the Bertschi School Science facilities. They also drew inspiration from exploring the Brock Center, where they discovered the building makes its drinking water from purifying rain that hits the building. Students were eager to discuss forward-thinking features, like an indoor green wall whose plants drink up and empty a building’s gray water tank through evapotranspiration. They spoke with architects about using thermobiometals to allow parts of the building to change form in different temperature conditions. The students ideated and developed a philosophical backbone for the building alongside administrators and architects. Much discussion ensued about how the building’s form and function would assist in creating an exciting learning environment. Students presented ideas on how the building could collect and express data. An example of the latter would be to design part of the building to funnel wind through a small opening, which could then be manipulated to create sounds. This design feature would be a novel and fun way for students to study wind speed and direction. Also under consideration is adding data loggers and other devices to the building for students to manipulate and use for research. There are more meetings to come, and students walked away from this first meeting feeling empowered, not just by the experience, but by the impact they are going to have on the future. Like a pebble in a pond, their ideas have potential to be catalysts for change in how buildings are designed and constructed throughout our region and around the world.              

Another recent and rewarding collaboration had my AP Environmental Science students looking at problems of the past to better equip them to work through future problems. Here, students partnered with the EPA Alumni Association, standing on the shoulders of giants to see a clearer path to the 22nd century. Students took information from the historical content on the EPA Alumni Association website and personalized it to relate more directly to their lives. They used ArcGIS Online to create elaborate Story Maps that related back to regionally relevant issues, like nutrient loading and eutrophication in the Albemarle, Pamlico, and Currituck Sound and coal ash pollution in the Elizabeth River. Their stories were sent to John Bachmann, an EPA Alumni Association board member and one of the authors of Protecting the Environment: A Half Century of Progress. John provided feedback and selected six of my students’ ArcGIS Story Maps to be featured with lesson plans and related material in a Teacher’s Guide that the Association created to assist teachers with environmental content (Request for Teacher’s Resource). John also worked with my AP Environmental Science class via teleconference using Zoom, allowing students to get a more personal chance to converse with a veteran EPA expert, despite being located in a different state. The use of technology empowered students to see themselves as working professionals (click to see a sample of student ArcGIS work). Not only were students using drones, mapping software, and other technology in their products, some students were also using technology to teach each other about ArcGIS. Students used Screencastify to make short video tutorials (click to see a video tutorial). The effect of this collaboration and the intense focus on technology elevated the level of learning in my class and helped students better understand how technology can be used to shape the future. The rich collaboration with the EPA Alumni Association allowed my students to learn directly how science can inform policy to shape the world around us. Students learned firsthand how regulations made by the EPA have improved the quality of life in America. They now feel more prepared to face problems that are looming on the horizon of the 22nd century.        

We are sitting firmly in the 21st century. The actions we take now will shape the centuries to come. Students need the opportunities and skill sets required to solve 22nd century problems. In my class, I seek out partnerships that put students in professional situations that will impact the future. My role as a teacher is changing. More and more of my students are at the helm, steering their learning in many exciting directions. It is my hope that through collaborations and the use of innovative technology, my students will be a force of good that helps shape the 22nd century.

Author Bio

Chris Freeman, a science teacher at Virginia Beach City Public School’s Kellam High School, is a recipient of a Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. He explores topics on the fringe of education and is always looking to improve the landscape of learning. Chris has a passion for using science to explore untold stories in our world and empower students to improve society.