Episode 52 – Ben Leslie-Bole
IN THIS EPISODE, DORIS SPEAKS WITH BEN LESLIE-BOLE, ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR AT ATHENIAN SCHOOL IN DANVILLE, CALIFORNIA. HE DISCUSSES HOW HIS STUDENT’S WORK ON A WATER RETENTION PROJECT LED TO COLLABORATIVE SKILL-BUILDING, MEANINGFUL DISCOVERIES ABOUT SCIENCE, AND INFORMED SOLUTIONS FOR THEIR SCHOOL’S CFO.
Doris: Thanks for talking to me, Ben. I’m very excited to talk to you. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself?
Ben: I’d be happy to, Doris. So I’m a geologist by training and had a 30-year career as an environmental consultant, and I realized that one of the things that I’ve always wanted to do is to teach high school.
Ben: So, last year I retired from environmental consulting and picked up a new career of teaching high school students. I had just finished my first semester as a teacher, and I was fortunate enough to start working at an independent school here in the San Francisco Bay area that has been enthusiastically embracing experiential education.
Doris: That’s so exciting. And so why did you come to the workshop?
Ben: Well, I was in the middle of the transition from my old career to the new career and I really wanted something that would get me thinking along the lines of experiential education and update my thinking about teaching. I attended the workshop because it looked like an exciting opportunity to incorporate something new and a little edgy, perhaps, into experiential education. And I was certainly stimulated by attending the workshop.
Doris: That’s great. Well, and you were taking on being a high school teacher. So, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, coming out of the workshop, you’ve had a year now of doing these courses. Tell us about what you did this past year, what you taught.
Ben: Well, I taught two classes in which I used what I learned from the workshop. The first is a class called California Water. It was a team taught class with two other teachers. We had a photography component, a literature component, and a science component, I’m the science teacher. And the class looked at all issues around the water in California, especially interesting this year with a record-setting wet year on the tail of a record-setting four years of drought. So, very interesting time.
Doris: How many students, what age?
Ben: The California Water class with all seniors, we had six students this year, so a very small class, and I provided some really wonderful one-on-one time to explore different ways of teaching and different ways of learning.
Doris: Well, and it’s a great thing with a pilot, right, to have…your pilot year, to have a smaller group that you can work with.
Ben: It was fortuitous to have a small group. It happened to be the second year of offering the class, so it was in some ways both piloting the class and piloting the teaching methodology. So those two pieces work together well.
Doris: That’s wonderful. And what was the other class?
Ben: The other class is a class that’s been offered at the school for a number of years. It’s an environmental science class, and I stepped in as a substitute teacher when the teacher who was there had to leave for medical reasons. And as a result, I had a new class for me of all seniors and most of the spring semester in which to work with them around the projects and using some of the methodologies that I learned from the workshop.
Doris: Can you talk about that class, and what you wanted the students to learn, what were the objectives, and how you set it up, and what happened?
Ben: I went into that class with the idea of making the entire class a project. So rather than the conventional lecture time, classroom time, and that kind of thing, I started right in the beginning using the concept of experiential education, and field trips, and outside work, and outside resources. So I told them right from the beginning that they were going learn two things. One of them was the natural history of the campus and the area surrounding the campus and the second thing was to learn effective presentation skills. And they were a little reluctant at the beginning, but I think I had a lot of passion for both of those components. And I think it motivated them, and I saw amazing growth, and enthusiasm, and a wonderful sense of a rapport, and ultimately a group project that really brought the class together well.
Doris: Wow. So what were they actually working on? What were they tasked with?
Ben: They were tasked with developing components, actually, individual pages for a guidebook to the natural history of the campus. Our campus is located at the foot of Mt. Diablo. It’s a beautiful campus adjacent to a beautiful state park, and we had the resources of the park and the campus to draw from. They put together…each of them had an assignment to prepare a page for several different species of birds, several different species of trees in addition to the different habitats present both on campus and in the Mt. Diablo area. And they studied each of those components, each of those species, and made a two-minute presentation every day on what they learned the day before.
Doris: Oh, interesting. You said you were amazed by the growth. What made them care about doing it? And well, let me start with that, why did they care about what they were doing?
Ben: I think there are two reasons that they cared about what they’re doing. The first reason was that they took the class around environmental science to learn something about the natural world, the environment that they live in. So there was an inherent level of interest, I think, in the topic, to start with. When I introduced the notion of a guidebook, I think what sparked them was the idea of actually leaving a legacy, there are seniors who are about to graduate. And I think they had an enthusiasm for their campus and their broader community and they wanted to leave a record, they wanted to leave a tool, something that they can give back to the community and to the school, and they were really excited about leaving a guidebook that would help others after them understand what grows on campus, what animals are on campus, what trees, what grasses, what habitats.
Doris: Yeah, so it was something they would actually be a real…used leave-behind by others. So you said that you brought in other people and other resources, how did you do that?
Ben: I contacted the park service, the state park system, and their Docent program, and was able to arrange a number of docents from the park to either join us on field trips within the park or to come on to campus with their insights and their knowledge to help us learn more about what was going on around us. I also drew from a local wildlife museum who brought…who had docents that brought in live animals, for example, and gave the students a chance to actually see some of the creatures that live in the environment around them.
Doris: Wow, that’s crazy. You are teaching in a magical place and at a magical school that you can do these things. Most people can’t, that’s terrific. So what about the other class? I’d love to hear more about that one as well.
Ben: I want to respond to what you just said, though, because we did not pay for any of the resources that either met with us or that we went to. It was all volunteers, and they were more than enthusiastic to bring what they had to us and for us to join them. So, other than physically moving our students to the trip locations which was fairly minor, we didn’t incur costs for doing this work.
Doris: That’s awesome. Well, let’s talk about this a little more. Because one of the things that a lot of teachers coming into these, you know, whether it’s a workshop or anything else we do that they’re worried about is how are they going to get people from outside the school to volunteer time for their classes and their students? And you just said is what every teacher I’ve worked with what has discovered. You send an email to somebody in a business or the park service or whomever, and they are so excited to be helpful in an educational experience where the students they’re working with actually care about their work. So you experienced that as well?
Ben: You know, I find that it’s the same thing, Doris, is that if you go to somebody, especially somebody who provides information to the general public, such as a park or wildlife museum or something like that, they are really excited about having somebody take interest in what they’re doing, and it gives them reason to do what they do, to be able to share what they know and to share it with a class, you know, an educational setting that is doing something a little bit different. There were so many people who said, “What you guys are doing is really cool. Your students are so lucky. It’s really great that you’re getting out. It’s really great that you’re bringing the students here.” They were all really enthusiastic about being able to share and being able to do what they did. So it was certainly a collaborative experience, and they brought a lot of their energy and knowledge to make this meaningful.
Doris: And how did that enhance the students? What was the impact on the students of having these other people, not just you as a teacher, involved in what they were doing?
Ben: I think there’re two pieces to that. One of them is that seeing somebody with passion is motivating to a student, whether it’s my passion or the passion of the outside resources. Just encountering passion, I think, is something that kind of wakes up the students and brings them a little bit into more greater presence. I think the other thing is that somebody who is outside the classroom is less familiar. And for most students, that installs a bit more respect, and a bit more patience, and a bit more desire to engage, and perhaps even desire to please that person that they don’t know very well, and it puts learning in a slightly different context. I think kids pay attention a little bit more. I think they’re a little bit more serious and I think they’re a little bit more interested in what’s being put in front of them when it’s a new person.
Doris: Yeah. Now, I think this is where you’re having taught one year is kind of interesting. I’ve been teaching 21 years, and I would say that actually what I’ve experienced in my own classes and in the classes of teachers I’ve worked with is the fact that there are real people with real jobs outside of school. Engaging in this work and passionate about science or the environment or animals or whatever it is they’re working on in the classroom makes the learning so much more relevant and meaningful to the students. And when you’ve been teaching for 10 years, not 1 year, you will become, I hate to say it, kind of, “Oh yeah, you’re just the teacher.” And maybe not, but I think the fact that there’s somebody else other than the teacher who’s deep in the subject as their life’s work is…I’ve seen that students react really powerfully to that. It is a big deal.
Ben: And you know, it may be, Doris, that I came from 30 years of doing something other than teaching that puts me in a little bit of a different position in that way as well.
Doris: I’m betting so. That’s what I’m betting. I bet that’s true. So tell me now about the other class.
Ben: So I just told you about the environmental science class. And the California Water is a class that has now been offered for two years. All the students are seniors. We had six students this year. And the purpose of the class was to look at water from its origin in the Sierras to its meeting the ocean and all the things that happens to water in between. And we looked at everything from measuring snow thickness in the Sierras with avalanche probes and calculating how much water sits in a watershed, all the way to generating electricity with hydropower, to fish hatcheries, to dams, to how water is managed, to the California and the federal state water project, the federal and state water projects that allocate water from the rainy spots in the north to where the water is needed in the south. We talked to farmers, we talked to fish hatchery folks, we talked to many people around many different sides of water in California, and we used a lot of field time and a lot of outside resources. Again, people who are passionate about what they’re doing, who are committed to what they’re doing, and people who brought some really different perspectives on how California uses and manages its water.
Doris: Wow, that sounds amazing. Now, did you do anything…did they have a task with the deadline, what were they tasked with?
Ben: One of the things that we did was set up rain gauges on campus, and we measured over a couple months of the wet spring that we had. We measured rainfall and we calculated how much water, in terms of gallons, actually falls the property that the school operates from that actually falls on campus. And we built on that to use that, number one, as a way of sort of gauging, what does it mean when you get an inch of rain? What does that mean when you get 30 inches of rain in a year? What does that look like? And then to the question of, does this become a resource that the school could use? Is there a way that rather than letting this water run down through the ditch down the stream? Is there a way that the school could use this water? And if so, what would it take to make it useful? So, that triggered an exploration into some very real considerations of what happens on campus. We looked at how much water the campus buys every year, we looked at when during a 12-month period the water usage peaks, and when during the 12-month period the precipitation peaks. And as you can imagine in water-thirsty, hot, dry California, water precipitation, water falling on us peaks in the January, February, March time frame, and water usage peaks in the July, August, September, October time frame.
And so that there’s a whole disharmony in there between when it’s available and when it’s needed. We looked at how much of our total water usage goes to irrigation versus domestic consumption. And they learned a lot about, you know, the balance there and where water saving measures really make a difference. But then I put to them this question, and I worked with our CFO, our financial manager of the school to come up with this question and this problem for them to solve. And the problem that I asked them to solve was this. Knowing how much water falls on campus in a typical year and knowing how much water the campus uses in a typical year, I asked them to figure out whether it would be cost-effective and meaningful for the school to find a way of retaining water on campus to meet its annual water needs. As it turns out, a lot more water falls on campus than we need in the year. So having enough was not part of the problem, the problem was figuring out how to do it and does it make sense? So what I asked them to conduct essentially was a feasibility study, and the feasibility study would be presented to the CFO and a couple other members of the school community as a way of determining whether or not there was a feasible and viable way to retain water on campus. And the kids were really excited about it.
Doris: That’s awesome because they were working on something that was completely meaningful and they had a deadline where they were going to present to somebody real, who’s actually going to decide whether to do their proposal or not. How cool is that?
Ben: I think it worked really well. And I think that because the CFO was not part of the faculty, she was removed, and I think they revered her a little bit, I think it added to the importance of the assignment that they had. We had a couple of the teachers come in to be part of both the evaluation process and then the presentation process. So there were outside faces that it gave the work that there were doing some credibility and some gravitas. And one of the other things that motivated them was they realized how much water is used to put on the ground to grow plants after having been treated to drinking water standards, and how little water actually goes into domestic consumption. So they were very concerned about the fact that we treat a whole lot of water in California to drinking water standards and then we put it on the ground. So they were motivated to find some way to avoid that, perpetuating that problem.
Doris: Oh my gosh. So did the students work on teams for this or did they work alone? How did that look?
Ben: The students worked in teams. And there were six students, so I split them into two teams, and I worked with each of them to come up with their concept for what they would evaluate in this feasibility analysis. I worked with them about different methods of retaining water and bit different costing structures around how to retain water. And basically it boiled down to one team chose to look at building big tanks, concrete tanks to hold water, and the other team looked at building a reservoir. And so we looked at how much does it cost to do earthwork, to build a dam? How much does it cost to build a concrete tank? How much does it cost to capture the water? Where are you gonna capture it? And then build that into a financial model that basically answered the question of whether or not it’s feasible, and ultimately the feasibility was compared to what we actually pay for water in a given year. And so they sort of had that in the background as the guidepost against which they were evaluating the feasibility.
Ben: So interestingly, what they added to this was, once they got to the financial analysis, they started looking at a lot of other…what might be considered secondary considerations, like environmental impact, how the neighbors view it, how long does it take to do the construction? And they were able, at the end, to come up with a thorough evaluation and a recommendation for what to do next.
Doris: Oh my gosh. And so how did the presentations go, the solutions?
Ben: Well, this was really interesting. Both teams were really committed to their evaluations and really committed to some of the conclusions that they made. As it turns out, the cost of retaining water on campus far exceeds the cost of paying for water every year to the point where they were almost a little bit horrified. And it touched on one of the other lessons that I wanted them to learn about water in California is that we don’t pay for water what it is really worth to us. Water is undervalued, and they learned that. They learned that, you know, as a really bright lesson. Through this exercise, they discovered that the cost of retaining water far exceeds the cost of paying for it. And so their recommendation became not about ways to save water, not ways to retain water on site, but their recommendations then evolved into how do we reduce the amount of water that we need for the non-domestic purposes? How do we get around this problem of treating all this beautiful water out of the Sierras to drinking water standards and then pouring it on the ground? So that’s where their focus shifted to.
Doris: Oh my gosh. That’s so really amazing.
Ben: Now, having said that, the big takeaway lesson for these guys was that they didn’t practice enough, and they didn’t dig deeply enough into the issues to be able to answer some of the questions that were posed to them during the presentation. And so the lesson, another sort of a secondary lesson that they learned in there was, “We actually didn’t think broadly enough about the implications or the details to be able to really answer these questions.” And so in their, took for lack of a better word, lack of success, you know, in the portions that they feel like didn’t go that well, it was a very powerful teaching tool.
Doris: So here are these students who come into this class, and I imagine based on what the class is, and that they are seniors, and it’s elective, and it’s a science class, that these are probably students who perform very well in traditional classes, is that right?
Ben: I think… Yeah, they were, you know, high performing students, they’re bright kids, they’re really interested in what they were learning. And it may have been the first time for most of them that they stepped out of the conventional classroom structure to learn something and to solve a problem in a way that they had never been faced with before.
Doris: And they had to do a lot of different things that aren’t traditional in a science course. You didn’t lecture, give tests. So coming out of it, what are the kinds of things your students learned? What do you think they got out of this experience?
Ben: You know, I would just broadly say there’s three things that they learned. One of them is they learned more about giving presentations. So that was a skill, I think, that carries with them for the rest of their lives, and I think will make a big difference in college. So I think that’s important. I think they learned how important it is to solve real world problems, and I know a couple of the students are interested in solving real-world problems, either in medicine or engineering. So I know that that’s going to stay with them. And I think the other thing was that none of them came into the class thinking about the value of water or how important water is to us. So many of us just have water every time we need to turn on…we need it, we turn on the tap and there it is. And I think the big, really, powerful takeaway message here was, “Wow, how we use water really does make a difference, and it’s not the way we thought it was going to make a difference.” You know, it’s not in whether I drink eight cups of water a day or whether have a waterless toilet. It’s really more about the bigger picture of how we use the resource of water and how we use it to keep our desert, basically our desert area community green.
Doris: And how powerful that they learned that, and I can’t imagine that no matter how fabulous a lecturer you may be or no matter what brilliantly written articles you would find for them that they could ever have gotten that out of a traditional kind of class, lecture-based class, the way they did with what you described, which is a really, really interesting and brilliantly set up problem that they had this grapple with and how interesting that they ended up in very different places than they expected.
Ben: They did. And you’re right, I could have told them that water is undervalued and they would have said, “Uh-huh.” And that’s the end of it.
Doris: Yeah. But they discovered it themselves, right?
Ben: Yeah, they discovered it themselves.
Doris: So as you think about teaching this again, as you go into your second year of teaching, all these methods that you use in this whole approach, are you going to continue with this kind of approach, and why?
Ben: I absolutely am going to continue it. I think this is a great learning year. It is a great practice year. It’s a…understand what’s effective, what’s not effective. I think the power of learning through self-motivated solving problems for outside, unfamiliar parties and doing it in a compressed time frame is a powerful combination. And I’m going to look for other ways of applying that same approach throughout the class, and particularly throughout the water class, to find different ways of solving problems and different types of problems to solve.
Doris: That’s awesome. So they will have a deadline where they’re presenting their solution to a problem to somebody real. And what about having them work on teams? Was that useful?
Ben: I think working on teams was really useful. And the reason I say that is that, number one, they each brought different skill sets to the team, and number two, it was very easy for some of the folks to believe that their ideas were the best ones and that they should stand. And I think having other voices brought different perspectives and asked questions in a way that allowed them to think together. And in many cases, several cases for both teams, I watched them go through the process of chasing a strong voice, chasing a solution proposed by a strong voice and discovering that one maybe wasn’t the best one to pursue. And coming back to the beginning and sort of talking more collaboratively about how they’re going to expend their resources in a limited amount of time.
Doris: Yeah, which is an amazingly important kind of learning, how to collaborate well and not necessarily get everything you want your way, especially with what sounds like some pretty strong, academically strong students who can often come in thinking they know what’s best. And what about, you know, when you talk about they learned presenting, can you talk a little more about that? Because…how did they start? And talk a little bit about why you think learning to present…beyond the fact that, you know, you’re going to present in your life, what is that…why are you glad they learned to present? Why was that worth it?
Ben: You know, here’s…to answer your question, I’m gonna draw off from both classes because there are important lessons in both classes that I taught around that. And to me, at the beginning, what I saw was a group of students who were successful in high school, who were comfortable with their peers, and generally had some degree of comfort standing up in front of their peers and talking. What they didn’t have was a sense of organizing their thoughts or a sense for answering questions that their peers or that their audience would be interested in hearing the answers to. So, identifying questions that were meaningful. And what this process was about, for me, was helping them focus their research, focus what they found to be important, and sort through a big pile of information to pick out the stuff that’s interesting, find a way to personalize it so that there’s rapport with the audience, and then present it in a very succinct manner.
And in the environmental science class, every day had a presentation that was two minutes long by each student, almost every day. And their homework assignment was to take the species, take this habitat, go explore, go learn, go figure out about it, take pictures and come back, and in two minutes or less, tell us what we need to know. And at one point, I pulled out one of the articles that was written about the way that Steve Jobs makes presentations, made presentations, and there are 7 or 11 points that someone extracted about Steve Jobs. And we found ways to incorporate, most, if not all of them, into the presentations that we made, and it gave them some structure and some focus for presenting. And during the final presentations, they got a couple of comments that said, “Well, guys, this was really great in content but your presentation skills are terrific.” And it’s practice, it’s comfort, it’s practice, it’s having a reason, it’s having structure, and it makes a big difference.
Doris: And a last question, Ben. Did they learn, actually second to last, did they learn science?
Ben: They absolutely learned science. Yes, they absolutely learned science. They learned the material that was appropriate for the class, and it was science and natural history-based information. Yes, they learned it.
Doris: And they probably will remember it beyond the test, I would bet?
Ben: I’d like to think that this is the kind of learning that becomes lifelong, Doris, the lifelong skill and lifelong content, and I think it sticks with people much longer than studying for a test and then walking onto the next class.
Doris: I think so too because they care. So are you glad you left your career to become a teacher, high school teacher?
Ben: I am so happy teaching high school. I am thrilled to bits.
Doris: Well, I’m thrilled to bits for your students that you are teaching high school. And it was absolutely wonderful to hear about the phenomenal work that you’re doing for your students. Thank you, Ben.
Ben: Thank you, Doris. It’s a pleasure talking with you.