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When the teachers are the students learning is more than fun

The science curriculum in some elementary schools in St. Louis and St. Louis County has a new look: classes planned and taught by high school students. Last summer, the Missouri Botanical Garden, with the help of a group of elementary and secondary teachers, launched a program they call ECO-ACT.

Thirty high school students from city and suburban high schools spent the month of August exploring the Missouri environment, urban and rural. Since then they have been translating what they learned into activities that would interest and inform grade schoolers. In the process, they have developed leadership, management, and communication skills, as well as a solid sense of usefulness.

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''I've learned,''says Karl Kaltenthaler from University City High School, ''that I can sit down and get things organized, that I have things to say. I know how to work with others; I know how to consult.''

Since the student teachers, by design, teach in neighborhoods that are different from those they live in, their concepts of culture and environment are extended. Thus the program supports the voluntary integration effort now underway in St. Louis.

To top it all off, the grade schoolers love their high school teachers. ''Every day the children shout, 'They're here! They're here!' when we come,'' says Kellie Nave, another University City student. ''Each day we go is the best day yet.''

Elementary teachers were looking for ways to upgrade the science curriculum at the same time secondary schools were trying to involve students in projects that would give them self-confidence, feelings of self-worth, and the experience of being useful to the community.

The Botanical Garden, with a history of involvement in community education and a concern for the environment, seemed a natural organization to turn to. An anonymous donor came forward with funds for a three-year program, and work began.

From the beginning, plans called for a program that would address both the need for environmental education at the elementary level and the need for leadership training at the secondary level. To get the project underway, David Wilson, its coordinator at the Botanical Garden, contacted public and private high schools in the city and public schools in the suburban districts.

The idea was to have a racial, ethnic, and cultural mix, both in the training group and later in teaching assignments for the classroom portion of the project.

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Each high school was asked to appoint a teacher, an administrator, and a student to serve on the advisory committee. Teachers from six elementary schools , three in the city and three in the suburbs were also included. Their task was to set objectives for the program and provide a core of support in the schools.

With the committee behind him, Mr. Wilson began recruiting students for the summer training program. To test commitment, he laced the process with hurdles.

Applicants had to complete a questionnaire, provide references, undergo an interview, and make a formal commitment to both the August training sessions and a fall elementary school assignment. Stipends were made available for those who could not afford to give up summer jobs for a month.

The first Monday in August the students gathered at the Botanical Garden. They came from two suburban high schools, one private school, and three city schools. Fourteen of the participants were white, 15 black, and one oriental. Nearly all were entering their junior or senior years.

Most of the students knew very little of the city and knew nothing of its infrastructure. Some had never been in rural Missouri.

The program had four main objectives:

* To give an overview of the urban environment and its problems.

* To give a close view of a rural environment typical of Missouri.

* To offer some exposure to educational methods with specific applications to elementary schools.

* To develop leadership skills.

Activities were designed to meet these objectives. From the first day students were challenged to explore and to work out their own agendas for getting information. They learned to ask questions, to observe closely, to integrate information from different sources.

They visited water- and sewage-treatment plants, the air pollution control center, newspapers, parks, neighborhoods that were new, old, and redeveloped. They talked with city planners, attorneys, environmental experts.

They kept journals, and at the end of each day they shared observations and evaluated experiences.

From the city they went to the country, to Shaw Aboretum, the Garden's 2,400 -acre center for environmental education on the Meramec River, 35 miles west of St. Louis. Here, they had forest, prairie, river, and pond habitats to observe.

They learned how trees moderate an environment and what influence a river has. They tried their hands at some of the daily chores of 19th-century farm life, carrying water and chopping wood, and learned firsthand to value every individual effort.

The final phase of the experience focused on educational strategies. With some help from professionals, students used what they had learned to plan activities for the classrooms they would be working in come September.

At Banneker, one elementary school in the project, three teams of high school students come to the three third-grade classes once a week. For them the trip to the school through a neighborhood of weed-grown vacant lots and boarded-up buildings is itself a lesson in urban geography. But the forbidding aspects of the architecture (''early public school severe''), playground (an expanse of blacktop), and security (the doors are locked; you must ring a bell to get in) dissolve each week in the enthusiastic welcomes they receive.

''When you walk into a classroom, the kids start clapping,'' says Kate Christopher, Clayton High School senior. ''The children really view us as teachers. They're interested in what we have to say.''

The teachers are pleased, too. ''I hoped,'' says Banneker's Mary Lynem, ''that the children would be motivated to have some interest in the environment. Since the program began, I've seen lots of caterpillars and grasshoppers.

''I've also seen an interest in cleaning up, in keeping gum wrappers and candy papers off the floor. I've seen an interest in books related to things they talk about, and they're mindful of the change of seasons.

''Best of all, I see how youth relates to youth, as the high school students choose what they think the children will be interested in.''

Outside on the blacktopped playground, shouts of excitment ring out as children crowd around teen-agers handing out plastic magnifying glasses. They look at the ground, at the fence, at leaves, into each other's eyes.

Then it all settles down, and the high schooler-teachers begin an exercise in close observation. Look at your leaf. Tell me what you see. What is different about your leaf? How do you describe it?

Kellie Nave summed it up for her peers: ''You learn that teaching is hard work. It's a challenge to be ready, to think what a third or fourth grader would like to do, to have enough material.

''I spend three hours a week getting ready for one hour. But I get real pleasure from it. It seems worthwhile to me to let them know what they can do for the environment.''

And more comments from the children:

''They teach you special things,'' says Cherita.

''How else would I know about leaves?'' asks Theraso.

And from Keena: ''I've learned how to look when I take a walk.''

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