UPPER DUBLIN — This is the first year Erin Loch is teaching the Environmental Science-Project Based Learning class at Upper Dublin High School, but PBL has been a big part of her classes during the entire 10 years she's taught at the school.
"It's all project-based and problem-based learning, which means it's really completely student driven," Loch said. "I'm setting the framework and I'm doing a lot of the behind the scenes maneuvering, but they make most of the decisions."
Loch, who is this year's Upper Dublin Medal Outstanding Educator honoree, said her philosophy is to teach the whole student and help students develop and practice the skills needed to succeed.
"A lot of people call them 21st century skills. I like to call them success skills because they're skills you've always needed and will always need, like collaboration and communication and how to use your resources, problem-solve, be creative and curious," she said, "and that, I would say is equal to helping encourage students to become scientifically literate citizens."
The PBL process can be chaotic and frustrating at times, but students end up getting "so much more than if I was just standing at the front of the room talking at them," Loch said.
"It's really fun to watch students work in a PBL setting, no matter who they are, because you see different kids emerge as leaders that you never would have expected," she said. "You see different thought processes that you never could have predicted, and you really see reward when they figure something out together as a group without my help, without me telling them."
Each year's PBL project will be different, but this year and next year will be working with Green Building United in the International Living Future Institute's "Living Building Challenge," she said.
There are only 22 buildings in the world that have been certified as living buildings, which are self-sustainable and environmentally green, and take the LEED building standards a step further, she said.
"LEED certification is great and it's all about doing less harm, but what's really amazing about Living Building Challenge is it's about doing more good, so it's sustainability on steroids," Loch said.
"You have to produce 105 percent of the energy that you're going to use. You have to collect all the water that is going to meet the needs on-site and also treat all of your water that would be leaving your site. You can't use any materials that could do any harm to the environment or to people," she said. "You have to build it with equity in mind because it has to be accessible to all, both people and animals. You have to have a certain amount of your site be for urban agriculture that can help feed the community."
This year's class is designing a new educational facility for Robbins Park, she said. Although next year's project has not yet been set, the hope is that it will be to design a living building tiny house to be placed on the UDHS campus to be used by Life Skills and other students, she said.
Students in the class create conceptual plans, including the science behind the planning, which are then turned over to professionals to do the technical drawings and calculate the costs, she said.
Fundraising efforts have to be done before the buildings could be constructed, so it's not yet known when construction would take place, she said.
Many of the students say they plan to remain involved in the process even though the class and design work will be over, she said.
"They want to see this happen. They care a lot about it," Loch said. "They're not gonna just walk away from it."
Certification of living buildings happens a year after construction is completed when it has been determined that the building meets all the standards, she said.
She and the students have made or are making several public presentations on the Robbins Park plans, Loch said.
A Berwyn resident who grew up in Doylestown, Loch said she has been teaching since graduating from college in 2001, first at an outdoor school, then a museum, followed by two years in Seattle schools and at Upper Dublin for the past 10 years.
Loch said she comes to Robbins Park with classes about twice a month. Students from a college preparatory environmental science class she teaches are currently volunteering at the park, she said.
"We use this park a lot and we love it," Loch said, "and I think it's really important that any time you can give kids a chance to find purpose, it makes learning so much more meaningful."
This is the 35th year for the annual Upper Dublin Medals Program. This year's presentations will be Wednesday, May 15 at Manufacturers' Golf & Country Club. Information is available at udefoundation.org.