When U.S. educators are seeking inspiration, they often turn to the Institute for Democratic Education in America - a group that organizes tours of innovative schools and programs around the country.
In late April, Hood River Middle School teacher Michael Becker and the Food and Conservation Science program were selected as a premiere example of innovation, creativity and cutting-edge educational vision within U.S. schools.
In all, 37 educators and administrators from across the country spent the morning in the presence of enthusiastic middle school students and project coordinator Becker, reviewing the applied learning program housed in the new greenhouse, classroom and garden project on HRMS' northeast corner.
"We traveled to HRMS specifically to see the work of Michael Becker and the students who are actively using permaculture principles to thread together learning about math, science, agriculture, entrepreneurship and sustainability," said Scott Nine, IDEA executive director and tour leader.
Becker, along with Brent Emmons, HRMS principal, has worked to create a real-world application lab for sciences, math, history and literature through curriculum-based, student-directed activities. Becker, as a "teacher on special assignment" to the project, was moved into the job from his previous work as a full-time sixth-grade teacher.
Becker and Emmons both noted their shared vision to change from a traditional home economics model (family and consumer studies) to a model based on developing skills in food security, sustainability and comprehensive understanding through real-world problem solving. The vision resulted in huge curricular changes and a name change to Food and Conservation Science.
With full-time focus, Becker has been able to facilitate middle school students in their quest to create an exciting and functional sustainable mini-ecosystem.
"I really just see myself as a facilitator," said Becker. "These kids direct the learning. They do the math to figure out water pump rates and heat exchange in the greenhouse. They design the systems and the marketing plans. It's all about their taking full responsibility."
Becker has also supported the success of the project by garnering several hundred thousand dollars in grant funds, along with recruiting local volunteer engineers, scientists and educators to enrich the learning experience.
"Too often, we have failed to make learning relevant, engaging and connected directly to community needs," said Nine. "This project at Hood River Middle School demonstrates what is possible when we intentionally create dynamic learning spaces for young people and connect them to real-life in the community."