Kutztown 7th graders became teachers for Sustainability Day at Kutztown Area Middle School on May 29.

“7th graders learned about sustainability and shared what they learned with 5th graders, incorporating the environmental stewardship aspect into a younger child’s mind so that they become environmental scientists,” said science teacher, Jennifer Wyland.

This is the first time the middle school organized Sustainability Day. Wyland said district administration encourages teachers to conduct project based learning assignments so the 7th grade teachers created Sustainability Day, selecting Kutztown 5th graders as the audience.

“Each core teacher -- math, science, social studies, language arts -- took a group of students and they created a station that deals with sustainability as an idea.”

For the physical education station, students participated in a recycling relay race and a water conservation relay race, followed by an art station, taking about 250 used T-shirts donated to create reusable bags.

For Reading, there was an Escape Room during which students traveled around the room investigating children's books focused on sustainability and answered questions related to those stories. For Math, they created a sustainable house, based on answering mathematical questions surrounding sustainability. For Language Arts, there was a game of Pictionary based on sustainability words. For Science, there was an oil spill investigation.

For Social Studies, students focused on native plants around the Kutztown community.

Beth Patten, 7th Grade Social Studies teacher, explained that 7th graders had to choose a subject and then were divided into groups. Each day after PSSA testing, students researched and planned activities.

“It was so awesome to see the kids come alive after standardized testing,” said Patten.

They invited Kutztown Thriving member Robyn Underwood from Penn State University to speak. Underwood explained that bringing a plant to North America from another continent will either result in the plant not doing well in this climate or it will thrive.

“Or the bad thing is when we have invasives. These are plants that take over, reproduce like crazy… and we have them spreading like crazy,” she told students. “Those are the ones that are the big problem. They’re invasive because they take over and there’s not room for the native plants to grow.”

Underwood explained plants are the base of the food pyramid which is why native plants are so important.

“If it’s some sort of plant that is not recognized as food by any animals in this area, it is not providing a food chain,” she said. “We need to have native plants because the native animals, insects, birds, butterflies need those native plants to survive.”

Underwood offered a few suggestions of native plants.

“Native trees are very important. The best choice is an oak (Quercus sp.), because they are a host to a wide variety (over 500 species) of beneficial insects. Maples (red, silver, sugar) also provide early nectar for pollinators,” she said.

A great shrub is viburnum (various species) which host more than 100 species. For flowers, she suggests garden phlox (host plant for caterpillars of eight species of butterflies and moths) or coneflower (host plant for caterpillars of 18 species of butterflies and moths), and milkweed for monarchs and 12 other species.

For those who want to explore what native plants are good for their area, go to https://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder/ .

“As for where to buy them, Edge of the Woods is a local nursery that sells only native plants. There are also plant sales that you can find listed at the PA Native Plant Society website (panativeplansociety.org). It is also fun to swap cuttings, seedlings, and seeds with others who have native plants in their gardens.”

Underwood hopes the students think about what is in their garden.

“Then maybe make a choice to decide to have native plants and encourage their parents to do so,” said Underwood. “You can garden for beauty and also for wildlife… Encouraging natives makes the environment that much better because there is food for wildlife.”

At native plant bingo, 7th grader Karis Herrlin said, “The point is to get people to recognize the different native plants.”

“Native plants are important because that is what our animals are used to,” said 7th grader Toniann Bettencourt. “When you bring in species that are not native, it’s going to disrupt their life because they don’t eat it.”

7th grader Jonathan Massie and his group created a website that shows a map of where to find native gardens in Kutztown.

“This educates people about the different gardens in Kutztown and the different plants they might be able to find in Kutztown,” said Massie.

Kutztown Thriving hopes to have a link to that website to encourage the community to visit native gardens, including Kutztown Thriving’s native garden at the Welcome to Kutztown sign, “So that people can see the beauty but then also learn about native plants and hopefully they’ll want to have those native plants in their garden, too.”

As the day neared its conclusion, Wyland said, “Teachers were on the back burner and students were in the front. Students were the ones creating, selecting and determining what was going to happen. It’s become a wonderful day.”

Wyland hopes the 7th and 5th graders had a great day.

“Overall, I want them to walk out of here with a sense of ‘I can change the world, one step at a time.’”

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Lisa Mitchell is an editor for Berks-Mont Newspapers, covering news and events in the Northeast Berks County area.

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