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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Classroom energy: Partnership between Spokane Public Schools, Gonzaga pushes climate science for elementary students

Indian Trail Elementary 4th graders from left Kingston Berg, Josie Gnaedinger and Ezmae Houtchens work with science kits taught by Gonzaga University students working through the Center for Climate, Society and the Environment at the school in Spokane on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Indian Trail Elementary 4th graders from left Kingston Berg, Josie Gnaedinger and Ezmae Houtchens work with science kits taught by Gonzaga University students working through the Center for Climate, Society and the Environment at the school in Spokane on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

A cluster of Jaime Whitney’s fourth-grade science class sat huddled Wednesday morning around circuitry that would make Thomas Edison envious.

The purpose of the lesson was to differentiate renewable and nonrenewable types of energy, using the hand crank, solar panel and battery pack to power a buzzer and a light. This team added a degree of difficulty by constructing a parallel circuit powering both with the hand crank.

“It worked!” said Ollie, one of the students, raising his head to look for a teacher to show his discovery as his partner powered both devices with the crank. “We’ve gotta show somebody!”

It’s that moment of discovery that Spokane Public Schools and Gonzaga University’s Center for Climate, Society and the Environment is trying to reproduce across the district’s 36 elementary buildings, including the Libby Center and Spokane Public Montessori. Kits featuring lessons teaching climate science and renewable energy are now available to teachers after a pilot program last year.

The Spokane district is the only one in the state that has made the climate science kits available at all its elementary buildings.

The partnership not only benefits elementary students, whose classroom learning is supplemented by the hands-on experiments contained in the kits, but aspiring teachers, environmental policy experts and scientists-in-training at Gonzaga.

“One of the things I wanted to do, work on for myself, was I wanted to learn how to explain climate-related issues in ways that I can break down, and ways that I can explain it to anybody and make sense,” said Grant Plotner, a senior at Gonzaga who led Wright’s class on Wednesday and who wants to go into environmental policy work.

Students including Plotner and his partner on Wednesday, senior Ana Reyes, helped develop the content for the kits, said Karli Honebein, the climate literacy program coordinator for Gonzaga’s climate center. The work was supported by state funding made available through the ClimeTime state initiative, a project begun during the 2018-19 school year that channeled funding from the Legislature to classrooms for professional development in teaching climate science.

The college students’ presence in the classroom is also important for young learners, Honebein said, to show that there’s a pathway to careers in science and education.

“Most of our fellows are actually females,” Honebein said. “It’s really cool to see young people identify with women, who are scientists.”

Reyes said she hopes to obtain a doctorate degree after studying biology at Gonzaga, and the program allowed her to gain experience in a classroom.

“I just really love the energy that they bring into all the lessons,” Reyes said of the elementary students.

Three of the climate fellows at the university graduated last year, after working on the project, Honebein said. All of them have found jobs in environmental education.

The lessons are based on the curriculum approved for student instruction at the elementary level. The work is supplemental to the lessons being taught to elementary students about climate science, said Kelly Kielian, elementary school science coordinator for Spokane Public Schools.

“We’ve received very positive feedback,” Kielian said. “The lessons are very engaging.”

At another table, fourth-grader Eman was working out circuitry between the hand crank and a pair of AA batteries that had been charged with renewable power. While the solar panel, hit with a flashlight beam, wouldn’t get the hand crank to turn on its own, the pair of batteries did.

Eman wasn’t as big a fan of the buzzer as others in her class.

“It was a little annoying,” she said, with a smile.

Later, she would write down the lesson she learned about the batteries as her “exit ticket” for Wright, to explain what she’d learned in the hourlong class.

This lesson allows the students to be “energy explorers,” Plotner said, and experiment for themselves about which circuitry and power sources work and which don’t. It’s the kind of learning experience, he said, that worked best when he was in elementary school.

“It’s impossible to walk in there, and see them freak out about getting a circuit to work, and not smile,” Plotner said.

One of the pair’s most popular lessons deals with the effects of climate change on animal habitat, Reyes said.

“We teach the kids what happens when a polar bear lives in the Arctic, and all the ice is melting,” she said.

After writing down what they learned, the students put their chairs back under their tables and stood in a line, ready to return to their home classrooms, while Reyes and Plotner packed up the circuits, sunglasses and batteries to cart to another elementary classroom.

“It’s so cool to know that the work we’re doing with kids is teaching them about things that are really important in today’s world, and things that are really growing and becoming an issue,” Plotner said.

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