When high school science teacher Don Sprangers tells people what his classes are like, people almost always say, “Wow! I wish they’d had that when I was in school!” And it’s easy to see why.
Sprangers, a Wisconsin native who has called Washington County home for more than two decades, has developed a ground-breaking (quite literally) Sustainable LIFE Curriculum that he offers at Washington Academy, the private high school where he teaches in East Machias. For Sprangers, who is equally passionate about science, the environment, and teaching, enriching the lives of his students through hands-on learning is essential. This vision for meaningful learning experiences led Sprangers to create his own, ever-evolving field ecology curriculum.
“These lessons are basically all outdoor activities, field activities, research-based, so they are things that are real and happening in the students’ lives,” says Sprangers. “Students are engaged. They have a voice in what’s important to them and what they want to be involved in; they help guide [the curriculum]. No two years are the same.”
Sprangers’ field ecology students are able to study a broad range of topics, essentially right outside their doorstep. The sky really is the limit.
“There are some key elements to the curriculum,” Sprangers says. “One of them is that the watershed is my classroom. We’re interested in agriculture, rivers, lakes, ecology, forestry, alternative energies, recycling programs, gardening, and greenhouse work. These are all elements of the curriculum; if it’s a nice day we’re gonna be outside. We have our tree nursery, gardens, and vegetable greenhouse, as well as a salmon hatchery that restores wild Atlantic salmon to our rivers, within walking distance of the school.”
And on days when the weather is foul? “We’ll do an energy audit in the school, or tally up some data we’ve collected in the forest test plot,” he says. “We might be juggling three, four, or five projects at a time. In the end, the work gets done.”
Sprangers and his students have been instrumental in efforts to help Atlantic salmon populations recover in Maine, although they face long odds. It’s vital work, says Sprangers, not just because of the end result, but because of what kids learn from the experience.
“[Salmon conservation] work is so important—because it’s all about awareness,” he says. “I love salmon fishing, but when I moved to Maine, Atlantic salmon were a threatened species. So, I got involved in salmon restoration. Now, my kids are running a hatchery. We’ve been at this [salmon restoration work] for 20 years, and the salmon are no better off than they were 20 years ago. The work is restoring salmon, but it’s also teaching students to be good stewards of our land.”
Sprangers, who continued his own education by pursuing a master’s degree at age 40, has been recognized at the state and national levels for his work in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) learning. He is the recipient of a Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (2003), the International Paper Environmental Science Teacher of the Year Award (2007), and the Agriculture in the Classroom National Teacher of the Year Award (2007), just to name just a few. When you hear the philosophy at the heart of his Sustainable LIFE Curriculum, the value of his exceptional teaching style is clear.
“This younger generation is spending so much time in front of a screen; kids are not spending quality time outdoors. If they do go outdoors, a lot of times, it’s structured for them—a baseball or soccer game. A lot of students don’t have the opportunity to just get out and play, get their hands dirty, explore,” says Sprangers.
“Today, you take kids out, they don’t know what to do with their time; they don’t know how to have a personal connection with nature. We need to get them outdoors. We have to do this, because if these kids don’t value nature, they’re not going to protect it, either. It all comes down to, we only protect what we know, and we only love what we know, and if you don’t know and love nature, you won’t savor and enjoy and protect it. It’s so important to have these connections.”