If you ask your students to lead the way in learning, you might just find yourself moving in unexpected directions. The building of a hydroponic garden at the International School of Kuala Lumpur, where I work, was one such experience.
By following educationalist Cathryn Berger Kaye's service learning process - investigation, planning, action, reflection and demonstration - my senior students identified elements of our campus that they felt were in need of attention. They concluded that a garden would be a powerful resource.
Space, however, was limited. After brainstorming, one student proposed a hydroponic garden: she had such a garden at home and explained that the plants grow using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil - and little space is required.
The other students agreed that this seemed perfect for our needs. A hydroponic garden would highlight environmental issues, supply resources for our food services provision and put these young people in the driver's seat of collaboration and learning.
And so it began. Students combined their efforts to bring the plan together, a process that was longer and more complicated than we had expected. For instance, the project needed funding, so the group learned about grant-writing in order to apply to Malaysia's World Wildlife Fund and other local organisations. The money allowed them to work with the school's facilities staff and purchasing department, along with external experts and contractors.
When the time came to set up the garden, we replaced a group of potted plants with three vertical rows of piping, all linked to each other, to the tank and to the pump that ensured the water would keep moving. The garden was built in a day but the lessons didn't end with its creation.
The students were able to learn from their mistakes. They developed an understanding of the basic elements of planting from a hydroponics expert brought in as a consultant. They learned about fundraising, the world of contractors and the administrative requirements of using the outdoors as a learning space.
The greatest gain, however, was neatly summed up by one student: "It was challenging to build, as we needed to get the balance just right. But the biggest benefit of the garden came in the form of awareness. My friends sometimes ask me what the garden is for, and I feel that it initiates conversations about the importance of finding alternative methods for sating our needs."
Laurence Myers is sustainability and service learning coordinator at the International School of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Top 10 ecosystems resources
1 Eco assistance
Help your students to get a handle on ecosystems with this well-designed presentation and activities.
2 Rainforest reliance
By the end of this comprehensive scheme of work - complete with worksheets - your students should be able to tell you all about the delicate ecosystems of rainforests and why it would be a good idea if people stopped chopping them down.
3 Shoebox systems
Forget four seasons in one day, how about four ecosystems in a shoebox? This innovative activity gets students investigating ecosystems in a fun and interesting way.
4 Chain reaction
Food chains aren't just something you join to get your lunch; use this exercise to take an in-depth look at how they work in the natural world.
5 System cogs
Pollinators, pests, predators and parasites may not be your ideal choice of dinner guest, but this activity gets students to grow broad beans and then observe which insects come and tuck in.
6 Animal passport
Create handy fact files on rainforest animals with the worksheets and information included in this pack.
7 Habitat hierarchy
Teach your students about the feeding hierarchy in a variety of habitats, through the intricacies of food chain relationships.
8 Barrier basics
The Great Barrier Reef is known by many but understood by few. Make sure your students end up in the latter category with this activity and accompanying worksheets.
9 Desert diaries
This printable ecosystems booklet enables students to explore the desert through wildlife, plants and climates.
10 Nitrogen knowledge
Cover the basics of the nitrogen cycle and its place within ecosystems using this clear presentation.