Chris Leonhard has been teaching science at LAS for five years and has been Science Department Head for three.
How long have you been at LAS?
This is my fifth year.
Where were you before you came to LAS?
I was with the Nashville Teaching Fellows, a program in Tennessee that enrolls people from jobs from outside teaching. You earn a master’s degree in education while teaching at an inner city school for two years.
When you came to LAS, did you start teaching science right away?
Yes, I was teaching ESS and the 8th grade classes. Earth sciences is what it was called then.
What did you think about the Leysin environment when you first came here?
We were so busy the first year that it was hard to get out much, but I took lots of little one-hour trips just to get to know the area. Leysin is a stunningly beautiful place.
Did you start using the outdoors in your classes right away?
Actually, the very first day of class we went outside for a walk. It was an opportunity to get to know the kids individually as we walked. But as far as using it in the classroom, it was probably late October of my first academic year before I was organized enough to lead an outdoor class. Part of the syllabus for ESS is going out and doing some things.
Do you you use the outdoors in your class quite a bit?
As much as possible. You need to take advantage of where you live when you teach any kind of science.
Do you think it gets the kids more engaged in science as a subject when they’re outdoors doing stuff?
Yeah, definitely. Sometimes it starts as a negative, like they’re cold or something, but then it turns into something funny to them. And from there it starts to become fun. You get some kids who really start to love it. Not all the kids, of course [laughs], but you do get some kids who start to like it.
The outdoors is pretty exotic for most of these kids, isn’t it?
Just going into the woods is an exotic place for modern teenagers who are always attached to their electronic devices. For a lot of them it’s the first time they’ve gone for walks in the woods.
How has your use of the outdoors evolved since you started here?
It’s a lot more organized, standardized, and procedural now. We are getting to where we know how we want to do things. Before it was kind of just playing around a little bit and seeing what would happen. Before, we’d just go out and see if we could set up a plot and see if we could keep the kids from just turning it into playtime. But as we learn how to do it and we put together materials, then it starts to become more useful.
Is it turning into citizen science?
We’re spending so much time learning how to do it and trying to do it the right way, that it’s coming to the point where what’s being collected is actually useful. When you’re going out with kids and they’re not paying attention, when they see it just as a one-hour effort and they can forget about it afterward, then they don’t take it seriously and the result is that the data is not as good. The more you let them know that this is important, the more they care about the data and the better job they do out there.
Could you tell me about your ants project?
We have the local wood ants and they build these large mounds. We’re first surveying where they all are and then we’ll actually start doing some research in terms of why do the ants choose, for example, to put a mound where they do? Is it sunlight, is it temperature, is it availability of a food source, maybe the steepness of a slope? There could be any number of factors. So we’re going to look at those things and see if there’s a pattern. We also want to do some things with behavior, like why are ants more active on some days and not on others? Is it sunlight, is it time of year, is it temperature, is it available food sources? You can imagine a whole series of questions like this. Then you can go in and look at all the biotic and abiotic factors in the environment and try to decide why things are happening the way they are.
How is this good for the kids beyond just studying ants? Are they learning something that’s bigger than ants?
For one thing, they’re seeing connections. We’re not just talking only about the ants themselves. We’re talking about why ants are important. For example, they cycle carbon and nitrogen in the ecosystem, which is extremely important for the growth of other plants. This leads to insects and birds and all these other things. We’re quickly talking about the whole ecosystem. It’s important for the kids to understand how everything connects to each other.
Are they also learning the scientific process?
Extensive research shows that having kids involved in whatever’s going on and making it important to them will help them learn better. So if we’re studying science not just by talking about it, but by actually going out and doing it, they’re learning the scientific process better. This hands-on education is a big part of the goal.
Do they design any of the ant study themselves?
Yes. In the fall we’ve just kind of collected some basic data about where the ants are, the height of their mounds, what kind of trees are around the mounds, that kind of thing. In the spring we’ll do one study that I’ll set up and then the kids will have the opportunity to do their own studies. The internal assessments for the new IB science curriculum requires that the students carry out individual projects. They have to do their own research, plan their own study, and then they have to carry it out. It may be that they don’t do an ant study for their IA project, but the class’s ant research will show them how to design a study for themselves. Some of the students may become interested in ants and do their own ant studies. One of the great thrills about doing the ant stuff is that the kids get so much out of it. They often start with an “ick factor,” like “Oh yuck, there’s an ant on me!” and they jump up and down to shake it off. But then they end up laughing about it.
You used LETS as the Group 4 project last year. How did that go and what did you learn from it?
The main thing is that this was the first time we were doing it. We were trying to get our feet under us and see where the big problems would be. That’s how I was approaching it: Let’s just do as good a job as we can, but mostly let’s be really aware of where things go wrong and how we can make them better. That led to improvements between the first one in the spring and the second one this fall. And then next spring I can take what you guys learned from the science day with Savoy students and apply it to Group 4 to make ours even better. Every time it will get better. I think I was approaching that first LETS Group 4 project as just trying to survive [laughs].
What is a Group 4 project, anyway?
Group 4 is a requirement for all science students in IB. Therefore all students in IB. Except for ESS students, but we kind of pushed our way in a little bit to be included. It’s a requirement, so doing a LETS study for Group 4 day is a great way for all the students across the sciences to collaborate. You don’t normally get that. Normally chemistry students are doing chemistry labs and biology students are doing biology labs. But in this case the kids get to work together on something. So it’s a great way to collaborate, to teach the kids about teamwork. Also to introduce them to some of major issues, like climate change.
Does this cross-curricular approach apply beyond the sciences?
That’s the beauty of it. We’re addressing the horizontal curriculum, working things across disciplines. We’re getting geography involved, mathematics involved in some of this.
As I see it, the greatest failing in modern education, if I were going to pick out one thing, would be that there’s very little interaction between disciplines. We’re becoming more and more specialized at the expense of having well-rounded scientists who might see connections. If you’re always focused on one little thing you might not see the connection that your little thing has to something in another discipline. So to me the best part of this is that we’re creating students who can think cross-curricularly, who can think how things connect to each other.
What about involving the English department, or history?
Of course. There are schools out there who do theme teaching. We could read some local poetry about the mountains.
Could there be storytelling about science, about what they’re learning out there?
These are all things that can be developed. In my meeting with admin the other day I said that there are some logical next steps to take this and I hope that we’re still going to do those things after I’ve stepped down as head of the science department.
You’re planning to bring a greenhouse to LAS. How is this good for students?
Again, it’s hands-on learning. It’s teaching the scientific method. You’re actually physically doing something. The kids can see the results of manipulating variables rather than just reading about them. They can hold the results in their hands if they want to.
How would a greenhouse facilitate this?
First there’s the scientific value of being able to do a whole host of experiments involving plant research that you can’t do without having something like that. Without a greenhouse, you just don’t have the space. You don’t have the facilities. It’s too cold here to grow things outdoors during the school year. This way we can grow things year round. It will be interesting to see how well we can we grow vegetables in December, for example.
What sort of projects do you have in mind?
Aquaponics is what interests me the most. There are a couple of great things about aquaponics. First of all, we’d actually be producing some food for the school. We’d produce tomatoes, cucumbers, fish, and more. Then there’s the scientific value, because aquaponics is basically a closed system, so you get to study the entire system. Kids can talk about the different parts of the system. It mimics what’s going on in nature.
What are the different parts of the system?
Maybe the fish is the most obvious place to start. You’re feeding the fish, which is the only input into the system. So you feed the fish and they give off waste in their normal everyday life. That waste is cycling in the aquaponics system. And there’s bacteria in the aquaponics system that converts the ammonium in that waste into nitrates. And nitrate is an essential fertilizer for plants. So those plants suck up all the nitrates, which cleans the water for the fish. All you need is to occasionally remove some solids that don’t get broken down, and you basically have a system that can run itself and produce food with nothing more than an input of fish food. Of course other inputs include carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water, but those things are plentiful in Leysin.
Could you see the fish being of a type that could be eaten in the cafeteria?
Definitely. Depending on what facilities we have, we could grow either a cold-water fish like perch or trout or a warm-water fish like tilapia. There are advantages to each. About once a year we could harvest the fish. What I’d like to do, though, is to divide the aquaponics system into four parts. Then every four months you’d buy a few new young fish and every four months you’d have fish to harvest.
How do you picture the greenhouse being built? Would there be student participation?
That’s the idea, you want students involved at every stage of the process. After we decide that it’s being built and what’s being built, students should definitely be involved with putting it up and setting up everything inside. That’s something that I think a lot of students would enjoy participating in. It’s also a good opportunity for them to do CAS hours, or service hours for other purposes.
Do you picture a cross-section of the LAS community using it?
Definitely. A quarter of the faculty responded to an email survey that I sent out. From the responses, without even considering class time from various science teachers or clubs that might want to use it, we have about 50 hours a month of volunteer time–faculty and other staff saying that they want to contribute. There are opportunities for everyone to have a little space in there to grow something. LAS has a lot of children, and children love aquaponics. They especially love the fish.
Do you think the new middle school kids would enjoy the fish?
Yes I do. In fact, aquaponics is becoming extremely popular in middle schools. Not just in the US, but in the Zurich international school, for example. They have a little mobile system.
You’ve done a lot of professional development courses at various places like Growing Power. Could you talk about these a little?
It really ties into the greenhouse. I’ve done a lot of summer programs. I’ve been involved in aquaponics at a couple of places, staying and working at facilities here and there. But the main one that I’ve spent weeks at was Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Growing Power is an urban farm. They basically take waste from the city, including beer mash from all the breweries, and spoiled produce that’s thrown away by stores like Walmart. They mix this with wood chips from the city to make compost. So they’re making all this compost and then giving it to worms in what’s called vermicomposting. So I’ve done all of the PDs for each one of these sub parts. And then using the vermicompost along with coconut husks to grow microgreens in an aquaponics system. They grow plants in pots with a mixture of vermicompost and regular compost. My vision for LAS is a composting program that leads to vermicomposting that leads to integration into the greenhouse. Then you take the leftovers from the greenhouse and feed it to chickens, so now you’ve got eggs as well. The system produces eggs, fish, chicken (if you want to kill the chickens), vegetables, and microgreens–and it all comes basically from composting waste. I don’t see this as just the greenhouse, this is a complete system that we’ll build. First of all, it’s great for classes, for showing students how systems work. This is a growing field of science. But also it’s great for the school. You’re producing a whole bunch of food out of the waste that we’d have otherwise stuck in a pile somewhere or sent off.
Would you use the term permaculture for this?
Permaculture aims to keep balance in a system, so in that sense it’s about permaculture. Though permaculture usually has a lot to do with managing the water in an area, as well as putting plant species together in ways where there are mutualistic benefits.
Is there a name that you’d give to the whole process as you envision it at LAS?
If we’re just doing the greenhouse, I’d call it sustainable agriculture, including the composting, vermiculture, chickens, eggs, and fish. But when we add a garden, which is what we want for the whole project, then I’d say the name permaculture fits.
Where do you envision this happening?
The space between Beau Site and the railroad tracks is beautiful and perfect for doing something like this.
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