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Dutch Fork Elementary magnet gives students hands-on, up-close instruction in caring for the environ

Irmo, SC - Lola Gantt, squinted her eyes and tapped her fingers intently on the plexiglass display.

“There’s the queen bee,” she said, a wide smile slowly growing across her face. “I’ve been watching her since we got the bee observatory at our school. The whole hive revolves around her. It’s so cool!”

Up-close encounters with nature are just part of the experience for students at Dutch Fork Elementary Academy of Environmental Sciences. The school officially launched its program at the start of 2014-2015 school year, offering students an opportunity to study core subjects through the lens of environmental studies.

“We ultimately are teaching our kids to really love the world and to look at how our lives as humans impact the environment,” Principal Julius Scott said. “Great schools capitalize on children’s natural curiosity and eagerness to learn. At Dutch Fork Elementary environmental magnet, we want our school to be a place where curiosity is encouraged and wonders grow.”

The program offers more than 10 field studies and special programs for its students. From raising trout eggs in the classroom to researching environmentally sound ways of growing food, the opportunities and experiences for students are unique to Dutch Fork Elementary.

“Partnerships are also important to the magnet program,” Scott said. The school holds multiple partnerships within the community, which assist in lesson structure and the students overall experience.

“When we first were in the initial stages we already had the Department of Natural Resources, Riverbanks Zoo, Saluda Shoals, and Congaree National Swamp,” Scott said, “That is what actually got us excited because when there are so many partnerships available, why wouldn’t we pursue making this magnet a reality?”

Saluda Shoals Park is one of the first partnerships for the new magnet program and continues to play a large role in the magnet’s growth. At the park, students conduct experiments and observe wildlife in their natural environment. Saluda Shoals lead park ranger Chris McKinney has been a mentor for the magnet students since 2014. He said the lessons students learn on the park help support lessons in the classroom.

“You keep it to where they can understand, so we have to know the curriculum,” McKinney said. “We need to think of what verbiage we actually need to use for any particular grade level. We are not only teaching, we are more or less instructing. We’re bringing light to things.”

Students conduct field studies utilizing several groups including City Roots Farm, EdVenture, South Carolina State Museum and other local community partnerships. A full-time resident scientist helps teachers to integrate and apply the environmental sciences across the curriculum in reading, math, social studies, writing and the arts.

“Dutch Fork Elementary School Academy of Environmental Sciences is such an important magnet to me,” said Amy Umberger, the school’s resident scientist. “I really believe that just the theme alone is why we got awarded the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant. If we could all just learn how to slow down and recycle as much as we can, compost as much as we can and take as little as we can from the Earth; these are really huge values we need to teach our kids, because they are our future.”

Standing in front of the school beehive, Lola animatedly describes her role in helping the environment.“My mom and I are in this environmental thing, we have gardens everywhere…” the 5th grader said, waving her hands through the air expressively. “I want to see other kids enjoying the environment and enjoying nature like the way we do. Like the way I do. I want to see them being interested with the environment and how it impacts us.”

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