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Waples Mill Teacher Turns Schoolyard into Classroom

Sean Duffy hopes to put school on the map for environmental science programs

As Waples Mill Elementary School begins to open its curriculum to more hands-on methods that promotes the importance of community, it is building on the foundation created by Sean Duffy's environmental science program that began nearly a decade ago.

"I'm trying to redefine and expand the use of the word community to include all the little bugs and trees and the water, and children have a real role to play in creating a better future," Duffy said. 

With the help of students and faculty, he has built a purple martin colony, planted native habitats, created an arboretum, and is currently working on a couple outdoor classrooms — all while tweaking teaching methods to enhance the elementary science, arts and social studies curricula.

Students can see first-hand, for example, how the native habitats function, naturally filtering runoff before it hits Difficult Run River behind the school.

"We want to have field trips to our own schoolyard," Duffy said. "We have created areas that are good for the environment and also demonstrate various lessons for the kids. We want the students to be able to do things here that are lesson-specific in their science and social studies curriculum."

This fall Duffy will begin his 23rd year as a teacher and seeks to fully implement the environmental science program he started years ago, providing Waples Mill Elementary students a hands-on learning experience that promotes community involvement.

With the permission of FCPS, Duffy is seeking private donations to fund the program, which he estimates will cost about $35,000. In the past, he has relied on much of the Waples Mill Elementary community for donations through various fundraisers. Now he wants to reach out to the business community in order to expand the program to its full potential.

The fundraising aspect of his program is still in the exploratory phase, as he is currently asking potential donors to simply pledge their support to show FCPS he can raise the necessary funds.

"I'm talking to supporters, small businesses and larger corporations, looking at grants and local families, an amalgam of family and institutions that would support my program here," Duffy said. "I have a lot of things already in place here at Waples Mill. I'm trying make it a sort of clearinghouse and go-to institution of children's conservation science. ... It just takes money to do that."

Duffy, who has spent the past 11 years as a science teacher at Waples Mill Elementary School, started to become fascinated with birds and bugs around the age of 14.

While pursuing his degree with the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, he began volunteering to take children on nature hikes through nearby parks and gave a few lessons on trees and birds.

"Somehow or other that just captivated me. I decided I have this knowledge and this ability, and there are lots of people that want that knowledge. So it just kind of matched," said Duffy, 54, of Reston.

After graduating, he took jobs at nature centers that had him doing "anything and everything," including lessons on birds, ponds, trees and insects for children visiting the centers. 

"When I moved to Northern Virginia, I decided I wanted to be more than the field trip destination," Duffy said. "I wanted to be the person who contributed 97 or 99 percent of their science knowledge. I wanted to be the full-time classroom teacher."

Duffy is now trying to move out of the classroom teacher role to facilitate Waples Mill's transition to a top school for teaching conservation beyond the students' science lessons.

"We're trying to dovetail science and arts with community service and philanthropic endeavors," he said. "I'm trying to empower them and teach them that they don't have to wait to be an adult to have an influence in our community. They can have an influence right now."

To learn more about the program, email SDuffy@fcps.edu.

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Trish Strat August 06, 2012 at 05:32 PM
There is still time to vote for Mr. Duffy in the Patch Readers' Choice poll: http://oakton.patch.com/articles/readers-choice-best-teacher-c57e20a3#

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