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AP Environmental Science: “Debunking myths and offering solutions” 

Nearly two dozen Mayfield students gathered on the Pergola Lawn in small groups, and busily emptied the contents of their bags of sugary treats—gummy Disney princesses and small marshmallows mainly—and proceeded to toss their dime-sized projectiles at the large paper targets before them. Everyone assembled was either practicing their aim or cheering their classmates on. And no, this was not a game for Spirit Week or some full-tilt lunchtime shenanigans—this was a lab experiment for AP Environmental Science. The day’s topic: Island Biogeography.
Environmental Science started as an elective at Mayfield, but there was such a demand last year for the subject, the science department decided to offer two blocks of AP Environmental Science this year, and even then, the classes were so popular, there was a wait list. In the classroom before the outdoor lab, instructor Lena Agulian talked to the students about why biodiversity was important for species survival. Teaching island biogeography is considered essential to the field of environmental science, as it directly relates to Darwin’s foundational work in the Galapagos. Ms. Agulian presented the determinant processes of island biogeography and what are considered the “expected outcomes” in the field—1) Islands close to a mainland will have a higher number of species than islands of equivalent area that are further from the mainland and 2) Larger islands will have more species than smaller islands located at similar distances from the mainland. 
 
The lab on the Pergola Lawn was devised to show this information in action and observe how closely the students’ experiments would support those claims. With black Sharpies, students had drawn both small and large “‘islands,” on the oversized pieces of paper, and every space outside of those islands were considered “ocean.” The marshmallows represented “plants,” the gummies represented “animals,” and as the squishy items were chucked from the ”mainland,” the class was given opportunities to imagine how actual animals and/or plants might have migrated from source areas to islands. The results of this exact experiment were mixed, and the class would later discuss how the parameters of the experiment could be improved. But the hands-on lesson made the subject much more vibrant, in a way that allowed everyone to take part in the fun.
 
The two blocks of this AP Environmental Science (APES) class are composed of both seniors and juniors–members of a generation born into a climate emergency–so Ms. Agulian deftly navigates her course material with as much scholarship and levity as possible. This might occasionally include a gummy princess as a lab material or a clip from South Park as required viewing, but she describes her general approach simply as, “debunking myths and offering solutions.” Ms. Agulian encourages the students to find agency and points of entry in the course material often. Because, when it comes to approaching topics like climate change she says, “the solutions are going to come from our students.” She reiterates the same message in her conversations with students as well. “You are the scientists,” she tells them, while equipping them with tools to feel “empowered enough to take those critical roles.”
 
Increased demand for more courses in Environmental Science is not surprising, as the subject material is ever-present in the minds of those in Gen Z. Callie Pippert ‘23—who was very active in bringing composting initiatives onto the Mayfield campus—was more than eager to take this course. “I decided to take this class because I am very passionate about sustainability and helping the environment,” she says. “I wanted to take a class where I could learn more about the environment and how to problem-solve…this class has also helped broaden my worldview.” 
 
 “I used to have a lot of climate anxiety,” confides Anna Pruyn ’23. But, she explains, “I have found that education and action help to make me feel less powerless when it comes to climate change.” 
 
Mayfield now offers 25 individual science courses, and as the current Science Department Chair, Ms. Agulian has to read teacher comments for every single class. But she says she has a special affection for this specific course. “APES class is not based solely on any one science, but exposes students to a plethora of challenges and solutions, and incorporates many fields of study, from ecology to chemistry to legislation…it's writing, it's reading, it's comprehension,” she says. “I absolutely love the class. I love that they come out of the classroom knowing a little bit more of what's going on in the world around them.”
 
Even students who have taken Environmental Science at Mayfield before, like Grace Nguyen ’23, find this AP course helpful. “I believe that this class is undoubtedly essential for all students,” says Grace. “I took the regular Environmental Science class last year, and something Ms. Agulian always said stuck with me: we need more legislators, lawyers, teachers, and people in positions of leadership to be environmental scientists.” Obviously, Ms. Agulian doesn’t expect all of her students to work in STEM fields, but she hopes their critical scientific thinking can enrich every field of work, with actions to serve the planet in much more productive ways.
 
A Catholic, Holy Child sense of stewardship feels pervasive in this class. Ms. Agulian teaches her students to be “proactive instead of reactive.” It is clear that this messaging is influencing these budding scientific minds, as they conceptualize their world, and their interaction with that world, in both the short and long term. Yasmeen Elrabat ’23 says, “I really enjoy learning about the environment and how we can alter our day-to-day activities to help reduce our ecological footprint. And Caroline Squire ’23 feels strongly that “Mayfield can prepare scientists of the future; individuals who might be able to help solve our environmental problems, and deliver proper care to the environment.” 
 
Ms. Agulian takes a lot of inspiration from her students, while she inspires them in return. “What I am hoping students learn from this class is that small actions can lead to big results. Consistency is key to success in any area of life and so much so in thinking and interacting with our environment.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.