Twelve Penn Charter fourth graders spent a week last May constructing a hyper-absorbent garden to manage rainfall in a puddle-prone corner of campus. In the process, they developed skills in critical thinking, collaboration and communication, and consulted with experts from the wider community to inform their work.
It was a clear Thursday morning in May 2019, and the Stormwater Management Team, a dozen fourth graders clad in neon yellow safety vests, gathered around a puddle in the field between the Kurtz Center and Penn Charter’s Lower School. A few stood patiently clutching shovels while others scooped buckets of water from the puddle and carried them off to be dumped along the edge of the playground.
The fourth graders knew the ground they were digging on would be wet—it had been pooling water on and off for weeks that rainy spring—but they had a deadline to meet and couldn’t afford to waste time letting the puddle dry on its own.
Luckily, this group was resourceful, determined and more than willing to get muddy. After a few minutes of scooping, the dig was back on.
And by the following afternoon, the puddle was banished for good, replaced by a tidy bed of mulch and half a dozen wetland plants. The swampy corner of the field that had once collected trash and dampened sneakers after every rainfall was transformed into a handsome new garden, teeming with life and, above all, dry.
The Stormwater Management Project
In May 2018, Penn Charter’s fourth grade teachers introduced into their curriculum a week-long geopolitical simulation called the World Peace Game. The project was a big success, and the following year they decided to create a second, concurrent project and divide the Class of 2027 between the two.
Teachers Orit Netter, Sonia Duprez and Laura Valdmanis knew they wanted something “hands-on and student-led,” in keeping with the spirit of the World Peace Game. They decided to anchor the new project around watersheds and stormwater management—topics the fourth grade had studied in depth that fall— and let their students develop the rest.
“It evolved into this big, beautiful undertaking that was rich and meaningful for the kids,” said Netter, who led the stormwater project while Duprez and Valdmanis facilitated the World Peace Game.
The entire fourth grade class filled out a questionnaire to give the teachers a better sense of who would be best suited for each of the projects. Then Netter, Duprez and Valdmanis selected the Stormwater Management Team based on their students’ interest in environmental causes and community-based work.
Netter assigned every member of the Stormwater Management Team a unique role— design manager, public relations expert, safety coordinator, photographer, botanist, to name a few. Throughout the week, the team broke into smaller groups to complete assignments related to research, design and, in the case of the public relations department, a blog documenting the project. This organizational structure allowed the team to function more efficiently in the short period of time available to complete the project.
With the logistics out of the way, Netter gave the newly formed Stormwater Management Team its charge for the week: to identify and address a stormwater problem on campus.
The Beginning: Searching for Inspiration
On Monday, Upper School science teacher David Nichols led the team on a tour of Saylor Grove, a stormwater wetlands project built by the Philadelphia Water Department in Fairmount Park just a few blocks from campus.
That site’s main feature is a shallow pond that acts as a detention basin, collecting stormwater runoff and filtering out pollutants before they can reach the Wissahickon Creek, which is a source of drinking water for Northwest Philadelphia. Native marshland plants help prevent the topsoil from eroding and provide habitat for native animals and insects. While more elaborate than what would be possible at 3000 West School House Lane, Saylor Grove served as a model for the kind of ecologically sound and aesthetically pleasing installation the fourth graders would strive for.
Back on campus, then facilities director William Quinn Hon. 1689 gave the team an overview of existing stormwater management systems at PC, including a rain garden near the new Palaia Field. Still undecided about where to work, the student team took note of several problem spots around campus that might benefit from their new expertise.
On Tuesday, the fourth graders walked to Jefferson University, where landscape architecture professor Kim Douglas showed them the 3D scale models and topographical maps she uses while designing her work. She gave the team a tour of Jefferson’s stormwater management system, which relies on a detention basin with wetlands and a series of channels and check dams to control runoff.
“Once the kids got outside and started roaming around the detention basin, they seemed to understand it pretty quickly,” Douglas said, recalling how the yellow-vested fourth graders examined every crevice of the modified landscape, notebooks in hand.
The team then traveled by bus to Alexander Adaire Middle School in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, where science teacher William McGeehan gave a tour of the expansive rain garden he helped construct on campus. Adaire’s garden offered the Stormwater Management Team a glimpse of what they might be able to accomplish at PC, albeit on a smaller scale.
Back on Penn Charter’s campus again, the students settled on a problem spot—the puddle near the Lower School’s main entrance—and turned their attention toward developing a solution.
Project-Based Learning: “An Application Economy”
The Stormwater Management Project is the latest in a wave of project-based learning (PBL) that has swept through Penn Charter’s Lower School in recent years. PBL is an approach that emphasizes hands-on work and problem solving while allowing students to chart their own course without strict predetermined guidelines.
“Kids learn best when they’re given some scaffolding—some background knowledge— they’re given a problem to solve, and then you let them go,” Director of Lower School Kate McCallum explained. “It can be unsettling for some teachers to work this way because they’re used to having their curriculum mapped out, but the educational experiences in project-based learning are really rich. You can incorporate what students are already learning in reading and writing and math and social studies into one project in really authentic ways.”
Project-based learning has taken a particularly strong hold among the faculty in Penn Charter’s Lower School. Every grade in the division features at least one major example of project- based learning, beginning in pre-K, where teachers have developed a student-centered, experiential curriculum inspired by the Reggio Emilia schools of Italy.
For McCallum, project-based learning is about helping kids become lifelong learners. She recognizes that purely information-based education will only take students so far, especially in the age of the internet.
“We’re not an information economy—we’re an application economy now,” McCallum said. “Kids can find the information they need within minutes, but then they have to think critically about how to apply it.”
Students in the Lead
On Wednesday of project week, the fourth graders traveled to Greensgrow Farms in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood to purchase plants and put their research into action.
The team peppered the staff at Greensgrow with questions about perennials and annuals, native species and wetland plants. Botanists Jasper Dittus and Wesley Eckel drew on their extensive research to help the team choose the best plants for their purposes, and team treasurer Keagan McShea crunched the numbers to figure out how many of each variety the group could afford on its budget. When the students were satisfied with their selections and had settled up with the cashier, team safety coordinator Alliric Willis made sure everyone boarded the bus carefully with all of their belongings and vegetation in tow.
The trip was a highlight for Netter and Aly Goodner, director of PC’s Center for Public Purpose, who watched the Stormwater Management Team operate like a well-oiled machine.
“The adults really didn’t have to be involved at all that day,” Goodner said. “We let the kids work directly with [the Greensgrow staff member], and she was blown away by their professionalism, what they knew, what they wanted, how they were advocating for their garden.”
Netter agreed. “The kids were passionate, they were knowledgeable, they were guiding this entire process. Everyone had a job and treated it very seriously.”
Putting students in the lead, she believes, is crucial for evoking that sense of passion and creating meaningful, genuine learning experiences. Project-based learning is most effective when students develop a sense of agency over their work and rely on each other instead of their teachers. “They have to own it,” Netter said.
Shovels in the Ground
On Thursday, the design team drew plans in the IdeaLab under the guidance of Upper School science teacher Corey Kilbane. He helped the team map out the deceptively complex structure of the rain garden, which is dug into three zones of varying depth and surrounded by a berm, a small border of raised soil.
When it came time to start digging later that day, though, it quickly became clear that adjustments were in order. Gardening expert and PC parent Paul Daniels, who was on site to lend a hand, quickly noticed a problem with the area the fourth graders had staked out: The soil was rich in clay and wouldn’t be able to sustain their wetland plants.
Fortunately, there was some usable ground, but they’d have to confine their garden to almost half the space they had originally planned.
“It was a huge hurdle in the project,” remembered Xander Bowen, the team’s director of public relations. “When we started digging the garden, we thought we would have all this space, but then Mr. Daniels said, ‘There’s no way you can build that big of a rain garden here because the soil isn’t good enough.’”
Undeterred, the team returned to the IdeaLab to redesign their garden for a smaller space. Then they got back to work in the field.
When shovels finally hit the ground that muddy Thursday morning, team construction supervisor Miranda Dziedzic made sure the project proceeded according to plan. Upper School students from Joy Lai’s photography class were on site to document, as they had been during Monday’s campus tour; a PC senior completing a Senior Comprehensive Project in digital media livestreamed a portion of the dig on Facebook. Goodner helped coordinate these cross-divisional and mutually beneficial collaborations.
Despite the setbacks and the mud, spirits were high come Thursday afternoon, and the fourth graders were poised to complete their garden on schedule. The team dug the basic structure of the garden bed that day and then installed their plants and mulch the following morning. On Friday afternoon, the team retired to the fourth grade classroom to debrief and reflect on their work.
Projects with Purpose
Goodner, who helped develop the curricular framework for the project and coordinated with community partners, is excited to see more teachers knocking on her door to ask for support. Project-based learning aligns effortlessly with her work in the Center for Public Purpose.
“We often talk about three things: addressing the most pressing social and environmental issues of our time, putting students in the lead, and grounding the work in Quaker values,” she said. “With those three pieces, project-based learning just makes sense. It’s a way to look at these issues while putting students in control of their own learning. And at the same time you as the educator are able to align the project with the content work you need to do.”
Another key component of project-based learning involves creating opportunities for students to present their findings to the wider community, as a means of celebrating their accomplishments and learning to articulate what they did and why. With help from Teaching & Learning Center coordinator Ruth Aichenbaum, Goodner convened a panel of evaluators—including PC teachers and Upper School students pursuing Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Certificates— to hear about the Stormwater Management Team’s work.
The entire experience, Goodner said, builds a foundation for more advanced project- based learning down the line, from the sixth grade Food Insecurity Project to the Senior Comprehensive Project.
And the Stormwater Management Team, for its part, is eager for more.
“This was an awesome, fun and productive week,” reads the final entry in the PR department’s Stormwater Blog. “We were all very pleased with ourselves.”