by Katie Boehlein
ric Engman is a physics teacher at Mt. Vernon High School, where he has also taken on the role of “campus beekeeper.” The process of starting a school beehive began some years ago, when Eric began installing a rotational series of mostly physics-related displays in his hallway. This was a project that was first started to “inspire curiosity” for his students, and when the science department discussed adding a biology display, adding a beehive was suggested. Over the next year, Eric took the lead on getting approval for a hive from his principal, the school board, and the district (all positive responses); making the project public with parents in the community; learning about beekeeping himself through the local bee club; purchasing enough beekeeping equipment for himself and five students; and constructing a list of students interested in doing hands-on learning with bees.
Today, all students at Mt. Vernon High School have the opportunity to be exposed to the natural world just by walking down their science hallway. The school’s observational beehive, which holds ten frames, is displayed vertically in the wall. Students can spend their lunch hour watching the bees’ activity from a bench near the hive, as well as listening to the colony’s buzz through a microphone installed inside the hive. Eric has also displayed seven or eight educational posters on the same wall which teach students about the biology of bees and inform them of the latest goings-on in the hive. Next to the observational hive is a wall of windows, where students and faculty can look out on the school’s second rooftop hive, located fifteen feet away. Students also have opportunities to work hands-on with the hive. Eric takes five students out to the rooftop balcony once per week, pulling from a pool of 50-60 currently interested students who have received written permission from their parents to be involved in the project. The students put on full jump suits and follow Eric out to the balcony to assist him in doing weekly hive inspections.
The impact that these beehives have had on the Mt. Vernon High School community has been extremely positive. As a result of the observational hive, students have a place to convene and learn at the same time. “It’s a neat place,” Eric says. “They can see everything that’s going on without any contact with the bees at all.” Students regularly spend class breaks in front of the hive, checking in on its latest action and holding competitions on who can spot the queen first. Eric says that the beehives on their campus have inspired curiosity in all members of the school community, not just science students. Students, teachers, and parents regularly send him current articles about bees and stop him in the hallway to discuss the impacts of Colony Collapse Disorder. Not only has Eric become a practicing beekeeper, but four other staff members and one student have since taken beekeeping courses and started their own hives at home. The biggest question Eric hears on his bee-enlightened campus is, “Why are bees dying?” The concern and interest about these tiny creatures has been electric at Mt. Vernon; Eric has truly created an inspiring place of curiosity and active learning.
Katie Boehnlein is a writer/intern for CLEARING magazine and teaching assistant at Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys writing about the endless expressions of place-based education, inspired by so many creative teachers. Katie blogs about her own ecological and urban adventures at “In the Midst,” which can be found at kboehnlein.wordpress.com.
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