We want our kids to have agency in terms of their ability to change things around them.
“Kids are born scientists. From the very first breath we take as a baby, we’re trying to explore the world with our five senses.”
Zoë Dash (MEd ‘11), the science and technology teacher at The Perkins School, is guided by the philosophy that there’s always more to learn. One of a handful of University of Washington College of Education alumni at the independent school in Seattle’s Maple Leaf neighborhood, Dash teaches her students, from kindergarten through fifth grade, to celebrate their exploratory sense of learning.
One way the school supports this emphasis is through its Sustainable Education Every Day (SEED) building.
The five-year-old structure is the first fully-certified, modular living building in the world, and Dash said she and other teachers use it to give students a hands-on experience with technology, energy use and sustainability.
Inside the SEED building, the classroom design purposefully leaves all the systems exposed. For instance, electrical circuitry doesn’t hide behind ceiling panels or walls. Students are able to think about how it works, why it’s connected or split in certain places, and what it’s providing power for.
“They can be thinking about that as they’re just daydreaming and looking up at the ceiling,” Dash said. “It makes being in a classroom a conscious thinking process. As opposed to a passive space, the space just becomes part of the learning journey for them.”
The classroom itself ties to many of the units Dash and her colleagues teach. When discussing oceans and the planet’s other bodies of water, they can link it to the building’s water system. For solar energy, they can go out on the balcony of the main building and look down on the solar panels of the SEED building. Learning about decomposers like slugs and pill bugs can connect to the composting toilet.
“I think the goal is to make energy more visible so that kids have a connection with how much energy they’re using and the importance of conserving it,” fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Ali Parizer (MEd ‘12) said.
Dash and Parizer are both alumni of the University of Washington College of Education and its IslandWood graduate residency in Education for Environment and Community. Grant Hayslip (MIT ‘19) is another Perkins School teacher connected to the College.
Parizer teaches in the main building where upstairs classrooms have a few sustainable features. One classroom has a skylight with a big mirror outside to reflect natural light into the classroom to decrease the use of electric lights. Parizer’s classroom has a small solar panel on the roof with two meters inside: one for energy being used at that moment, one for energy stored in wall-mounted batteries. The students read them each morning, keep records and make predictions for how long the solar power stored in the batteries keep the lights on. When it’s used up, they manually flip a switch to put the classroom lights back on city power.
But the sustainability lessons aren’t just at the school itself. The nearby Thornton Creek watershed plays a key role in Dash’s lessons, with field trips and experiments out in nature.
Dash said she loves the joy on her students’ faces as they explore the nearby creek bed and realize how amazing a little waterstrider is. For Dash, it’s an opportunity for students to connect with the environment on a personal level and discover their passion for protecting those spaces.
Keeping environmental issues hyperlocal is one way Dash navigates what can be tricky, scary subjects. Her students have scouting missions around the neighborhood, for example, to figure out how rain gardens, lawns or cement driveways affect rain runoff into the creek.
It helps when they can experience lessons in a concrete way and see positive outcomes that relate to their daily lives with activities like introducing plants that filter water to the creek’s riparian zone in order to improve water quality.
“If they feel the problem is too big, instead of trying to tackle it they shut off, they close down and they just ignore it,” Dash said. “And I understand that. It’s scary. There are big environmental issues that scare me, and I think, ‘How can anything I do affect this in a positive enough way to make change?’”
The balancing act is teaching in a way that makes students care and also feel like they can start chipping away at problems they see.
One phrase embodied at the school is “Sustainability is optimism.”
“We want our kids to have agency in terms of their ability to change things around them,” Head of School Barry Wright (MIT '92) said. “I think that for me, for us, it really is about hope.”
Dash wants her students to know they’re part of an interconnected planet where everything has an effect on everything else. No matter what their futures look like, she hopes they grow up to consciously decide what issues they give voice to and how they treat the people and the ecosystem in which they exist.
“Even if they’re not professional scientists when they grow up, even if they choose a different career,” Dash said, “we hope they’ll always approach life with this mentality of ‘Let’s figure it out. Let’s collectively explore, build data together and understand what truth can be as much as we can understand it as scientists.’”
Story by Olivia Madewell, marketing and communications student aide.
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications