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Celebrate Education Through Community Based Learning

Ella Niederhelman

IPSWICH, MASSACHUSETTS— From the marsh mud-caked boots in the school’s courtyard to the building’s sizable sunscreen supply, Ipswich’s take on hands-on science education is somewhat uncommon.


Located on the North Shore, the town offers a unique location for science education — and the curriculum follows suit.


With the middle and high school centered between the endangered Ipswich River, Great Marsh of Critical Environmental Concern, and multiple beaches — nature becomes the classroom.


The positive feedback loop of field trips


Interest for students is sparked in the beginning of elementary school, where they are taken on field trips simply to get their hands dirty.

Fig 1. Stella Schultz learns how to roll a hay bale during a day trip to Appleton Farm, where students can visualize sustainable farming at a local scale. Photo credit Victoria Harper


From wading into vernal pools to staying up late to watch the salamanders emerge on “Big Night,” teachers work to spark their students' interest.


By the time they reach middle school, these interests become units in the classroom. In the sixth grade, students first dive into sustainability.


The main focus of the introductory sixth grade year is a four day ecology-based field trip to the Ecology School in Saco, Maine. Alongside roaming the farm with friends, students learn the impact of food usage and consumption.


Upon their return, their learnings are quickly applied to other elements of sustainability — and weaved into a common goal.


From constructing small-scale sustainable cities, to building rideable electric cars, to testing insulation with a thermal camera, the primary hope is that “the topics we introduce the kids to will help them make environmentally friendly decisions when they are adults,” Christine Senechal, sixth grade science teacher, said.


With Ipswich’s community development plan outlining a sustainable town by 2035, this hope proves to be a necessity.


By the time students reach seventh grade, they broaden their scope. Now digging deeper into the natural environments that make these sustainable goals possible, students set off on a month of daily field trips.


One week is spent water-testing along the Ipswich River. Not only learning how to balance themselves in a canoe, students learn how to test for pH, salinity, turbidity, nutrients, and organisms found beneath the surface.

Fig 2. Ipswich High School students tie environmental science and biology to their local environments with a quick kayaking trip on the endangered Ipswich River. Photo credit Sienna Cullem


Although the trip has been in place for years, the importance grew in 2021 — when the river was listed as one of the ten most endangered rivers across the United States.


Channeling concern


With areas of the river not passable due to low levels, the experience was striking to students.


“Last year was a huge example of the need [for water conservation]. It really made kids think about what they are doing at home,” Senechal said.


With an issues fair in their eighth grade year, students often channel these concerns into a research project of their choosing. From pollution to drought, dozens of students select a local environmental topic each year.


By involving students so young, the interests established in the lower grade levels are then transferred to the high school, where the focus of local environments provides a foundation for even further understanding.


After completing their biology and chemistry requirements in their first two years, students are given a long list of courses to choose from.


But from marine and coastal science to sustainability scholars, nearly every class continues to find its roots within town borders.


Bringing students to the classroom


Students in environmental science classes participate in a salt marsh study each fall. They test for salinity levels, species, invasives (most notably, phragmites), and sea level rise. Calculating accretion levels — how much the marsh has accumulated material over the past year — and comparing it to the sea level rise, students see a striking example of local climate change.

Fig 3. Kayden Flather measuring a transect across the marsh to determine the presence of invasive Phragmites relative to native marsh grass species. Photo credit E. Niederhelman


“In hoping to restore our local marsh, we need to understand its workings,” Sarah Latimer, high school biology teacher, said. “As the ocean comes in, we need every salt marsh that can be on its feet, to be on its feet.”


“Ipswich kids can help,” she added.


The data proves just that. The information collected by students is then used by the Trustees of Reservations and presented at a symposium of local scientists. This year, the data was used in discussions of raising the roads situated along the marsh.


The effort is led by high school environmental science teacher Lori LaFrance. In 2021, LaFrance won the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for projects involving students in local matters just like this.


Similar to the study, students in biology and earth science classes plot and map the marsh each fall. They note salinity, depth, and compromised areas of the wetland that are openly exposed to contaminants.


Students are then able to map the sea level rise seen within the marsh and apply it to populated areas of town. When the students in marine and coastal science plot the anticipated levels, they measure one and two meters of sea level rise along the shore of a local beach.


In having students act as the marker of the anticipated level, they gauge the true extremity of what 50 years of sea level rise will look like in their town.


Without this, the magnitude of the rise would not truly be understood.


“I think it is completely different when you are learning about something in the classroom and so far removed from it. When you get outside, it makes it come alive for students and it makes them care,” LaFrance said.

After years of watching the curriculum come to life in this manner, teachers have established one goal — to get their kids outside.


All we need is good weather


Focusing on providing as many of these opportunities to students as possible, daily excursions become the norm in classes when the weather is right.


Licensed upperclassmen and faculty have permission to drive themselves and others to locations across town for a quick 70 minute class period.


This year, those locations included the river for macroinvertebrate testing, the beach for microplastic analysis, a local clam flat for red tide analysis, and the marsh for invasive pepperweed picking.

Fig 4. Ella Niederhelman cuts into the marsh to collect a vertical sample of the marsh soil to determine accretion levels of the Cedar Point Trustees site. Photo credit Dana Falardeau


“As soon as we get them outside, something sparks in them,” Michelle Barclay, teacher of marine and coastal science said. “We have such a vast habitat around us, and there is such a benefit to doing field trips… It just connects the dots better when they are outside.”


Latimer added, “Seeing their joy of being outside — giggling as they catch a green crab or seeing them walking through the reeds and lighting up like a young child playing outside — I see students reconnecting with the outside world.”


“That's the impact… You understand science by doing it,” she said.


Beyond the curriculum


Not only do these environments yield such an involved curriculum, but the exposure to them has crafted a young generation of leaders in — and out — of the classroom.


Also working to mitigate single-use plastics, the middle and elementary “Green Team” has received presidential praise.


In 2018, the group won the EPA’s Environmental Youth Award for their “Generation Growers” effort in creating a community garden.

Fig 5. Environmental Club members clear out the raised beds found within the community garden, filled with a variety of veggies and flowers throughout the growing season, in preparation for the winter months.


The garden is situated on a quarter-acre right next to the middle and high school building, and is maintained by students.


Rain barrels and a composting station channel the sustainable themes found within classrooms since the sixth grade. Dozens of tables and chairs are situated within the space to provide an outdoor learning space for the classes that can’t leave the property as freely.


Garden beds of fruit and vegetables are grown for the public. Hydroponic beds are maintained by students in the drought-resistant portion.


Throughout the year, products are donated to the Open Door Food Pantry down the road and the school’s cafeteria.


These efforts won them the Massachusetts Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education back in 2021.


By the time these award-winning students reach high school, they join the environmental club. Due to their efforts, the town banned single-use plastic bags and expanded polystyrene (styrofoam) back in 2016.


Members have also data tested for local sites and run beach cleanups in recent years.


With 60 members, the club is the largest of any found at the high school.


Unlike the others


Former member Dana Falardeau recently graduated from Ipswich High School, and will be attending Boston College this fall. With a major in biology, Falardeau attributes her passion to the science program she grew up within.


“Students in Ipswich take what they learn in the classroom and transfer it into the community, Falardeau said. “It inspires kids to want to make a difference in something they recognize as a prevalent issue in their backyards and beyond.”


“By teaching [the steps we need to take] in the classroom, we equip the next generation on how to identify and solve these issues,” she added.


Without such vast environments within town borders, the creation of such an impactful science program would not have been possible.


“We have so many places that make it easy, the teachers are willing, and there are companies that are willing to bring students in and teach them… I do not think that is commonplace,” Senechal said.


“I think it really sets up those that are going to be scientists in the future to understand nature, and it sets up others to understand their responsibility to our environment,” Latimer said. “Our whole science program would be impoverished without being able to do that.”




Ella Niederhelman

Ipswich High School, Massachusetts

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ella Niederhelman became her town’s first student freelance journalist that spoke for local youth. She has stayed in this role since the eighth grade, and under the guidance of the founders of the Ipswich Local News, her responsibility has only grown. Her work has expanded to other topics, concerns, and focuses across town throughout her years. Ella attends Ipswich High School with a focus on crafting a path toward effective climate journalism and storytelling in the media. Now a senior, she is co-president of her school’s Environmental Club and Green Team and an active leader/host of her regional Climate Cafe network, working to unite and educate community members on the local impacts of climate change. In the past two years, Ella’s work has spanned beyond town borders. Her articles have been published by the Harvard Gazette, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s (WHOI) Sea Grant Journal, and ecoAmerica’s Climate For Health Journal. Selected as a Girls In Science Fellow at WHOI, she has studied marine bioacoustics and oceanography in Woods Hole. Further, Ella was certified as a climate ambassador with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s joint program with Climate For Health. Continuing her involvement with the school, she has returned this summer for her second year as the communications intern for Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE). Looking ahead, she hopes to form accurate and compelling narratives that will involve the next generation in climate advocacy and action.


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