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By Allison Nagel, Workforce Development Manager

Instructor Brennan Bird works with students during a lesson on permaculture and systems thinking as part of the curriculum pilot program

Saving the environment, creating a better life, preparing for future jobs.

Perhaps the most telling part of the four-day sustainability curriculum and hands-on demonstration food forest installation at St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School in Vallejo was what students answered when asked why these lessons were important.

“It gives us a new method of keeping the earth more green,” one student answered.

“We can apply it in our real lives,” said another.

Those insights and connections were a welcome outcome of the pilot program, which focused on creating a curriculum that introduced students to sustainable, systems thinking through learning about permaculture and water harvesting in class and creating the demonstration food forest garden that now sits on the hill above the school’s new amphitheater.

“Permaculture is more than just about gardening. It’s a whole way of redesigning our lives,” said instructor Brennan Bird, who was called Mr. B by students.

Students participate in a soil erosion lab with instructor Brennan Bird

The tie-ins between the lectures, lab activities and hands-on experience were cemented as students in science teacher Dr. Summer Ragosta’s class linked something learned in one class with another. For example, students learned how to dig trenches, or swales, to capture water and covered the hillside with mulch. A soil erosion lab from class showed them what happened when water was poured into different boxes of soil — with students watching as the box with mulch absorbed a large portion of the water poured into it while the box with bare soil meant muddy runoff. They then used this knowledge to connect why adding both plants and mulch will help to both mitigate erosion and stabilize the hill. They also learned how mulch is an important component of greywater systems that capture and store used household water, such as from a laundry machine, in mulch basins around trees and other plants in the yard.

The lessons were a part of Sustainable Solano’s work to bring sustainability curriculum into local schools. In the pilot program, Mr. B worked with students to create a cob bench in May and then created and shaped the sustainability lessons in October through funding from the Solano Community Foundation. The lessons corresponded with the installation of the demonstration food forest funded by the Solano County Water Agency.

Students install the school’s demonstration food forest garden with designer Lauren Bennett

Students learned about the first principle of permaculture, which parallels the scientific method in its simplicity — starting with observation. They applied math skills, like determining based on local rainfall and the size of a roof how much rainwater could be captured, and the best ways of storing it, whether in the ground or in rainbarrels. And they discussed specific projects and people working in the field that use these skills on a daily basis.

Mr. B also tied the lessons to current events, talking about the importance of conserving and storing water even as the Kincade fire raged and the school had to close due to the smoke from the fire nearby in Glen Cove, and the city of Vallejo urged water use restriction.

We’re thrilled about what students have taken away from the classes with Mr. B and grateful to SPSV and Dr. Ragosta for working with us to plan for and bring these lessons into the classroom.

This pilot was the beginning of a very exciting time for Sustainable Solano as we step into more work aimed at growing sustainability education. In January, we will launch our Land and Water Caretakers internship program at Liberty High School in Benicia and will start our Land and Water Caretakers Certification course through Solano Adult Education for those who are interested in learning more sustainable landscaping practices. We’re looking forward to the work ahead!