When Dr. Carol Mikulka, founder and principal of Walden Community School in Winter Park, stumbled upon Project Learning Tree (PLT) in 2007, she knew she found something quite special. “Project Learning Tree provides schools with the resources to educate about environmental issues,” says Mikulka. “More than that, it helps you integrate lessons about the environment into every class, from math to English and more. It’s not all about science.”
PLT’s Florida partner is the University of Florida’s forestry department, and the program is an education program designed for teachers and other educators, parents, and community leaders working with youths from preschool through grade 12. The goal is to teach students how to think, not what to think, about complex environmental issues.
Since attending the PLT conferences and training, Mikulka and her teachers have completed multiple projects using the PLT curriculum, including building a community garden, where they tried different organic fertilizers and no pesticides. As part of a literacy program, students at Walden Community School planted a garden with tomatoes, basil and oregano. “We did a unit on Italy, so we read books about Italian immigrants, artists and more. At the end of our unit, the children harvested the food and cooked an Italian meal,” she says.
The school also has received grants from PLT to hold events. “We got rain barrels and built a passive irrigation system to irrigate a garden that was friendly to gopher turtles,” says Mikulka. “We built two gardens, one for us and one for the gopher turtles. The children researched what types of food the turtles like to eat. It was a lot of fun.”
Another community event was held to “raise awareness that environmental studies should be part of every lesson,” says Mikulka. At this event, the Walden Community School students displayed their science projects, held scavenger hunts and played games. “We invited children from other schools to participate,” she says.
According to PLT, “Studies show that when environmental education and outdoor learning components are integrated into curricula, student achievement increases, including test scores — particularly in science and math. More than half of all PLT activities can be conducted outdoors. Furthermore, independent evaluators confirm PLT increases students’ knowledge, reasoning and academic skills.”
The Walden Community School isn’t the only school in Central Florida participating in this program. Other schools include Lakeview Elementary in St. Cloud, Waterbridge Elementary in Orlando and William S. Maxey Elementary in Winter Garden. “I’m not sure why more schools aren’t members of PLT,” says Mikulka. “It’s especially great for elementary school, but the program offers some interesting high school and middle school options as well.” For more information, go to www.plt.org.