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In new collaboration, Spokane Public School students learn about climate change

Fourth grader Ivory and her classmates connect a miniature wind turbine to another panel.
Rebecca White/ SPR
Fourth grader Ivory and her classmates connect a miniature wind turbine to another panel.

All elementary school students at Spokane Public Schools now have a chance to learn about climate change.

The lessons which double as miniature science experiments, are a partnership between the Gonzaga Center for Climate, Society and the Environment and the school district.

Last Wednesday a fourth-grade class at Indian Trail Elementary learned about renewable energy from two special guests, Grant Plonter and Ana Reyes. They are undergraduate fellows at the Gonzaga Center for Climate, Society and the Environment.

They led the class through several experiments.

"Everyone have their safety goggles on, now who wants to hold a flashlight,” Reyes asked.

“Me!” a fourth grader shouted.

The table of fourth graders, all wearing black sunglasses, leaned in over a small solar panel connected by a black, and red wire to a second panel with a light.

"Now turn on the flashlight and hold it hold close to the solar panel, and you should see that this turns on," she said.

The entire table sits unusually quiet while watching the flashlight. The small bulb on the second panel glows red.

"And it turns on!" Reyes tells the class.

“Wow!” yells Elinor, one of the fourth graders at the table.

The most popular form of renewable energy across the class was a hand crank. Fourth graders Ivory and Nova were able to power a light, a small fan and a miniature noise machine.

“Do it as fast as you can,” Ivory said.

“Ta da,” Nova said, as the small red bulb lighted up again.

“It worked!” Ivory shouted.

Using their problem-solving skills, the class was able to turn the small, red lightbulb on with a wind turbine and batteries.

Kelly Kielian, elementary science coordinator for Spokane Public Schools, said she’s hopeful the hands-on science projects introduce students to concepts like renewable energy, or non-renewable energy early.

“So a lot of it is we're introducing different vocabulary, different concepts, but also you hear the dialogue between the classes, and that collaboration and communication that's happening between peers,” she said. “And all their ideas, that's part of we're bringing in when we bring in hands-on science.”

Karli Honebein, the climate literacy coordinator at the Gonzaga Climate Center, said there’s two goals she’s hoping to accomplish through the collaboration.

“When I think about my favorite science class when I was a kid, it was not a lecture or a video, it was an experiment I go to do, or a project I got to design,” she said. “Providing that opportunity for these kids to have a hands-on experience, and direct their own inquiry about science is something they're going to remember for a really long time, so it makes me really happy that they're making these positive connections to science education.”

She said she’s also hopeful students take what they’ve learned outside the classroom.

“Washington does have a much higher proportion of renewable energy in our portfolio than other states, and so letting kids, you live a place that uses these and we're really a leader, and it’s really cool and it happens right here in downtown Spokane that we make on our own energy using the river,” she said. “So pulling it back to that local focus, really giving them the opportunity to think about how cool that is, I think is a really cool way to connect to the science they're already doing in their classroom.”

Honebein said she’s hoping to expand the program to more schools, giving children across the region a chance to try their own experiments, and learn about climate change.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.