Schools launch ‘Kilroy Academy’ to help save lagoon

“I can’t tell you how excited I am about this program,” says Teresa Rockwood, Indian River County School District science specialist. “It is so powerful for students to see how what they are learning can be used to help the environment.”

Rockwood is referring to Kilroy Academy, a joint project of the school district and Ocean Research and Conservation Association that will involve enhanced, hands-on math and science education for as many as 11,000 middle- and high-school students.

Funded two weeks ago by a $100,000 grant from Impact 100, the innovative web-based initiative will stream into classrooms live scientific data from OCRA’s Kilroy sensors, which monitor water conditions in the lagoon to track pollution, and challenge students to chart the effects of tides, rainfall and other environmental factors on water quality.

“Instead of learning mathematics in a vacuum, they will see how trigonometry can be used to calculate what is happening in the world around them,” says ORCA founder and chief scientist Edie Widder. “This is going to be so much fun; I have already started writing the storyboards for the videos we are going to produce for the various lessons.”

Kilroy Academy evolved from an earlier Impact 100-funded ORCA project called Save the Water Babies.

“The 2012 Impact grant allowed us to bring Indian River County Charter High School students out on the lagoon to test for toxins,” says Widder. “The project was a fantastic success. The pollution maps the students generated made national news, and I think they helped move the needle on awareness about problems in the lagoon. The impact on the students was huge. It was transformative for many of them to see for the first time the value and utility of what they were learning. If science and math were being taught his way nationwide, the U.S. would not be 52nd in the world in science and math achievement.”

When ORCA moved to expand the popular program into other schools, however, it ran into an ironic obstacle.

“We were all set to implement Save the Water Babies with Jensen Beach High School,” Widder says. “It is expensive to do the field work, but they were working with us to do the fundraising and it was on track – and then the signs went up, telling people not to touch the water. We could not take students into the field to make pollution maps because the water was too polluted!”

Rather than put students at risk, ORCA and Indian River County School District came up with the idea for the virtual field trips that will be offered in Kilroy Academy. Kids will still be in close contact with the lagoon environment, learning math and science by incorporating real-world calculations and problem solving into classroom lessons, but they will be safe from contaminants.

Rockwood says the lessons will be channeled mainly through science classes, but students will be required to use math skills to complete assignments. “Every student in the district has to take biology. And a large percentage will take chemistry or marine biology, so we will tailor the modules to those classes. Our teachers will be involved in developing the curriculum.”

ORCA education consultant Leroy Creswell will work with the district to develop modules and classroom activities that fulfill Florida Common Core requirements. Teachers will then plug the modules into their lesson plans to engage students and enhance learning.

Rockwell and Widder say there will be two main benefits to the program: Students will learn the value and power of knowledge that previously may have seemed somewhat sterile and irrelevant to their lives; at the same time, they will be engaged with the lagoon and other aspects of the natural world, becoming more fully integrated people and, hopefully, gaining a determination to protect the environment.

“We are going to ask them go beyond mere calculations and start looking for solutions,” says Widder.

“When you start educating and empowering these young adults, you get the feeling maybe there is hope for the lagoon,” says Rockwell, who plans to have the course material available to teachers during the next school year.

If the academy works as well as expected here, Rockwell says it may be expanded to other district and states. “Hopefully it will go national.”

The Kilroys that will feed data to students and teachers measure water speed, direction, temperature and depth and can be fitted with chemical sensors. There are 14 in the lagoon now with plans for another 50 if the legislature provides funding this session.

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