Seventh grade team members, from left: Jesse Lyons, Zach Fromm, Sarah Casterton, Carrie Reed, and Brigit Storhoff. (Submitted photo)
Seventh grade team members, from left: Jesse Lyons, Zach Fromm, Sarah Casterton, Carrie Reed, and Brigit Storhoff. (Submitted photo)

The seventh grade team at Decorah Middle School, consisting of teachers Sarah Casterton, Brigit Storhoff, Carrie Reed, Jesse Lyon, Amy Pipho, Jonathon Carlson, Steve Larson and Zach Fromm, was recently awarded the Iowa Association of Naturalists (IAN) and the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition (ICEC) Award for Excellence in Environmental Education for their “One Well” unit.

This honor is awarded annually for outstanding environmental education program for youth or conducted by youth (preschool to grade 12) to recognize incredible contributions to the advancement of environmental literacy in Iowa.

The Decorah Middle School seventh grade team worked to weave science, geography and English together for the interdisciplinary “One Well” unit. The year-long unit began as “Trout Days” in 1993 and continues its focus on both local and global water issues. This year teachers brought in variety of speakers throughout the year to discuss various water topics with the 7th grade students. The students made terrariums in plastic bottles and explored current topics such as the algific talus slope habitat destruction connected with species extinction. Students saw learning concepts come to life during a fall field trip to Lake Meyer where they visited a wetland, collected macroinvertebrates and even chopped open goldenrod galls to illustrate the various organisms in the surrounding environment. In the spring, the seventh graders spent two days touring different locations in Decorah such as the fish hatchery, the wastewater treatment center and Upper Iowa Organics.

In English class, the students read A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, a novel about the struggles African women and girls often face walking miles every day to collect dirty water from a well for their families. They also engaged with the writer and characters in the novel by writing them letters of gratitude. For an experiential component to wrap up the unit, the students walked almost four miles to the Upper Iowa River to collect water and haul it back to school in ice cream buckets and open milk jugs. Just like in the book, the students tried to bring back as much water as possible. In 2018, the students used their water hauling experience to talk to others in school and their community about their water privilege here in Iowa. Through this outreach, the students raised $5,000 for Water to Thrive, an organization that works with rural Africans to provide access to clean, safe drinking water in their communities.

“My main goal as an educator has always been to help students wonder about the world around them,” science teacher Sarah Casterton said. “I feel lucky because there are many opportunities in Winneshiek County that help my science students explore its wonders. I also feel extremely privileged to work with PreK-12 grade teachers who integrate environmental education into their curriculum both indirectly and directly to help students make good choices about our world. To work with an amazing team of teachers who have a huge passion to help kids do the right thing for the environment and to connect all subjects in this interdisciplinary unit has really been an honor. The most rewarding part is watching students go beyond classroom learning and follow their call to action. On their own time and with their own ideas and resources, they have taken the next step to help our environment. This is very exciting.”

The “One Well” teacher team joins a long history of outstanding environmental educators in the state of Iowa. The youth environmental education award is named in honor of Chris Holt, a valued member of the environmental education community in Iowa who passed away at a young age in 1995. He is remembered as a young man with great enthusiasm for exploring and learning about the natural world with his family and friends.