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Learning to build a greenhouse is part of BHS’ Environmental Studies

By William Inman Daily Planet Staff
Saturday September 30, 2000


Last week, while many of their comrades toiled away in trig class and daydreamed of freeing themselves from the village of portables known as Berkeley High, a group of students were at 11,000 feet in the High Sierra backpacking, catching golden trout and soaking up mountain air. And they were getting school credit.  

These students are enrolled in the school’s new interdisciplinary environmental studies program they call Common Ground. 

The program is described by Dana Richards, its founder and director, as a “high-level, rigorous academic program with its heart in environmental studies.”  

Common Ground is one part academics based in environmental studies, and one part hands-on projects and field studies, Richards said.  

“They can take one or six courses in the program,” he explained. “And if they take any of the classes, they can participate in any of the set of projects.” 

The projects can range from working on the school’s recycling program, to taking a trip to the Sierras to backpack. 

The department offers a constellation of 11 courses with roots in the sciences, literature, religion and photography, with an environmental slant. 

Richards explained that eight of the courses are “completely devoted to the subject,” like wilderness literature, where students read works of Native American writers on nature and better-known authors such as Thoreau and London. 

Three of the courses are more or less affiliated with the program, but now directly a part of it, he said. One is a ceramics class. Some of the students are enrolled in environmental studies and some are not. Those enrolled in Common Ground are working on a solar fountain initiated by the students in environmental studies, while other students in the class are working on different kinds of projects. 

There are 12 teachers that teach in the Common Ground program. 

Around 1 p.m. Friday, four seniors in Richards’ ecoliteracy class were busy working on a new greenhouse, set to be placed between the H building and the Community Theater. 

“We’re making a greenhouse, and we went backpacking for five days,” said In-David Crickmore, a senior. “It’s definitely better than sitting in a classroom.” 

Richards is quick to say that though the students often spend part of their schooldays working in a garden or building a greenhouse instead of hitting the books, the program carefully balances the academics with hands-on experience. 

“That’s why it’s focused around juniors and seniors at this point,” he said. “They have a little bit more elective freedom and the classes are a little more difficult.” 

He said that he hopes the program will be include grades 9-12 in the future. 

Richards, who studied environmental science at UC Santa Cruz, said that he’s always wanted to create a comprehensive environmental studies program at a high school, 

And since Berkeley, is the cradle of the ecology movement, it’s a natural fit, he says. 

Richards added that he doesn’t like to preach a doomsday, environmental disaster doctrine. “It’s important to give the students a taste of the good things that people are doing for the environment out there,” he said. 

In late October, Richards plans to take 130 students to Yosemite for another backpacking excursion, and as many as 30 may get the opportunity to go to Cuba in January. 

“These are experiences that kids will remember forever, instead of just keeping their seats warm,” Richards said. 

Some students in the program are also working on a cafe/art space they have aptly named Cafe Phoenix. 

“It will not only be a place where kids can get good organic food, it will also be a place for art, music, dance and poetry performances,” he said.