Educators awarded for innovative orangutan project

It is unlikely the average high school student knows much about palm oil harvesting in Borneo and Sumatra, but the students of Technical College High School (TCHS) Pennock’s Bridge Campus certainly do. After Future Farmers of America (FFA) students visited the Philadelphia Zoo in December 2011 and learned that palm oil harvesting in rainforests could lead to orangutan extinction, they were determined to bring an end to the monkey business.

What resulted was an awareness campaign that reached over 4,600 people by means of informational presentations, online petitions, creative flyers and educational bulletin boards, along with a partnership with the Early Childhood Care and Education program to design activities for preschool and Head Start students. The three TCHS teachers who organized the collaborative project – Joan Farwell, Animal Science Technology instructor; Heidi Militana, Wildlife and Natural Resource Management instructor; and Jacqueline Steer, Early Childhood Care & Education instructor – recently earned the distinction of joining education’s answer to the Forbes Fortune 500 list of business entrepreneurs: the 3E (Educational Excellence and Entrepreneurship) Institute Educator 500 Award.

“We have had the good fortune of having staff members at all three campuses (TCHS Pennock’s Bridge, TCHS Pickering and TCHS Brandywine) recognized for creative projects,” said Dr. Alan Slobojan, director of career, technical and customized education at the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU), which operates the career and technical education schools. “It’s a wonderful thing West Chester University has been doing for a number of years. The 3E Institute recognizes excellence in education and those who have that entrepreneurial spirit to advance learning activities.”

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After researching palm oil, the students discovered it is used in many everyday products, including shampoo and cookies. But they also found that an alternative exists. By encouraging the use of sustainable palm oil, the students hoped they could reverse the damage of palm oil harvesting, preserve more orangutan habitats and prolong the existence of the species on this planet.

According to Militana, time and funding constraints on top of differing curriculums often prevent collaboration between high school educators and their students. But in this case, three different teachers and their students from three different content areas partnered to promote awareness of orangutan habitat degradation. The Animal Science Technology and Wildlife and Natural Resource Management programs spearheaded the awareness campaign and partnered with the Early Childhood Care & Education program to distribute the findings to preschool students and their parents.

“The project was unique because it addressed a ‘real life’ science issue and gave students the opportunity to research, offer solutions, develop presentations and present to their school community and others,” said Militana. “Students were inspired to act on their ideas and make an impact on a part of the world unfamiliar to them.”

The orangutan project is just one example of the innovative and collaborative projects underway at the TCHS Pennock’s Bridge Campus. The 3E Institute has also recognized Virginia White, instructor of Health Career Academy, for creating a program called Medical Middle School. Developed in partnership with Kennett Middle School, the after-school program targeted students interested in health sciences and focused on germs, body systems, hand washing and applying sterile gloves.

Meanwhile, Farwell looks forward to working with the Philadelphia Zoo once again on an educational conservation project to save polar bears and butterflies.

“It’s a special honor to be recognized in this way,” said Militana. “The 3E Institute believes in recognizing teachers because they are not often credited for the innovative work with which they engage their students.”

About the Technical College High School: The Technical College High School (TCHS) Pennock’s Bridge Campus is a joint venture of the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU) and Delaware County Community College (DCCC). As Pennsylvania’s first hybrid career and technical high school/community college, TCHS offers career and technical programs for high school students; and, DCCC offers associate degree and certificate programs for college students. As a public high school, TCHS is free to high school students residing in Avon Grove, Kennett Consolidated, Octorara Area, Oxford Area, and Unionville-Chadds Ford School Districts. The most unique aspect of the school is that it offers dual-enrollment classes for high school students that blend career and technical programs with associate degree college courses. Students in dual-enrollment programs can graduate from high school with up to 16 college credits.