The Living Machine
Near the table where I sit in Champlain Elementary School’s Learning Center, the Living Machine is burbling in a series of tanks connected by pipes, gutters, and hoses. Plants climb upward, reaching for the fluorescent light overhead. A painted turtle poses on a rock pile in the last tank, waiting hungrily for the person who feeds him and talks to him every day. Below him lurks a catfish, the only creature in his tank that he has not yet eaten. The entire tank system surrounds a cement pillar and is supported by wooden forms. Within the panels of these forms, children have painted a series of scenes showing what the students have learned about the Lake Champlain basin, and why it is such and important part of the community. In each panel, a turtle floats with a speech balloon telling important information about the basin’s history, ecology, and life systems.
Ironically, none of the water or plants in the Living Machine has been brought from the Lake itself, because the Lake is infested with zebra mussels that clog the water intake and outlet pipes, competing for native species plants—an object lesson in what happens when humans ignore the complex interrelationships of the delicate web we share.
The tank and its place in the center of the school are emblematic of the seriousness with which teachers and students here approach the issue of sustainability. They are learning about the natural and human systems that comprise their community and how to care for both.
Betsy Patrick is 3rd grade teacher who learned about and used the Living Machine with her class last year. They painted the murals that adorn it, which reflect a year of study “about what makes us a sustainable community, from the tiniest micro-organisms to the largest geologic development,” explains Betsy. “The premise that it’s fully sustainable in its cycle is not really true,” she adds. “Outside forces can damage it significantly. We first put it together as a miniature model of the larger Living Machine in South Burlington, which was huge and deep. The South Burlington Living Machine had bamboo and papyrus, plants that were exotic, living in it. The specimens we collected looked beautiful but we couldn’t sustain it.” This year they had to take it all apart and put it back together when the floor was tiled. They decided to have their Living Machine represent Vermont’s water ecosystems with native species.
“I think it makes sense to continue doing these projects, getting teachers connected to community partners they can continue to work with over the years. It enhances their curriculum and gets kids connected to real-world community issues.
“This past summer when we were putting the Living Machine back together, there were still things living in there waiting for hydration, and the kids got excited about it. We let it cycle for a while, and it was looking nasty and scummy, but Mark Companion would come in and get excited about the algae and the slimy stuff, because it was living, even though it was not pretty. Regardless of the slimy algae, we thought we needed to add diversity to the life in the Living Machine. We knew the materials from the South Burlington machine wouldn’t work, so we decided to make it more of a Vermont environment, keeping just creatures and vegetation that are native to Vermont. That’s easier said than done. But we’re not going out to find cultivated plants; we’re going to ponds to find out what’s there. Then we’ll bring some of that life back to our Living Machine and study water ecosystems.”
The idea for the Living Machine originated in the need to create a natural home for “Lightening” the turtle. “Mark Companion was the architect of the system,” says Betsy. “He helped us understand the whole process of what a Living Machine is, and helped us create the machine. It’s helped us get to know how important wetlands are. We need to understand stewardship of the environment. It’s our job to make sure the students make the connection. Our essential question in third grade is around cycles and connections and the Lake Champlain basin—learning about the state and geology, and historically how this place was used, what was natural and what was man-made, and how these different forces affect the environment.”
The Living Machine turned out to be an effective way to teach students these concepts about the environment. “This is their machine, and the more we talk about, the more there is to look at and understand. This fall we worked with kids in a Living Machine Stewards after school program. The kids in the program really grasped these concepts. They were starting to vocalize that they are responsible for the health and sustainability of the natural habitats around them. They were even making the connection that they are responsible for the health of the school community. It takes a lot of conversation with each other and with adults. It is important to let them talk with each other to get to understanding interconnectedness. Kids are much more sophisticated than some people realize when they talk about deep and important subjects like this. “
To create the murals that decorate the base of the Living Machine, Betsy and her class invited a local artist named Ginny Mullen, who came in and worked with the kids about what the mural around the tank should look like and why. “They did lots of sketching. Ginny brought the paints and worked with them for hours. The kids knew what they’d been taught, and she was very conscious about nature, but it was important for her to have the kids communicate what they wanted these pictures to look like. Forty third graders sanded, primed, sketched, erased and re-sketched, and finally painted. It was hard work but well worth it.
Betsy explained how the Living Machine impacts her work. “The focus of my year-long theme, its scope and sequence, is directly affected by this Living Machine and sustainability. This has changed how I teach, and the units I think are most important to be looking at. We couldn’t have done all this without the Sustainable Schools Project—time spent, books, materials, questions answered, people. They have helped us focus and take this route. It’s been terrific.”
Internships Have Supported Champlain Teachers According to Erica Zimmerman, Coordinator of Vermont Education for Sustainability, based at Shelburne Farms, Betsy Patrick was involved as an intern with Ocean Arks International, through a teacher internship program developed in partnership with “Linking Learning to Life” (LLL). A community based learning organization, LLL is located in Burlington.. “The sustainability-oriented internships were funded through a grant from the Fieldstone Foundation,” explains Erica. “The internships give teachers an opportunity to work with community partners. The ultimate goal is for teachers to learn new skills to enhance their teaching, and for community organizations to benefit from working with a teacher. For example, Sarah Judd, a lawyer with the Vermont Forum on Sprawl who developed the Healthy Kids, Healthy Neighborhoods Program, benefits by understanding what’s important in the education world—it’s good for the community to understand what schools are dealing with, what the responsibilities of an educator are, and how teachers are expected to “raise 25 kids” to be responsible adults—often because their parents aren’t able to fill that role, working too hard to make a living.”
“I think it makes sense to continue doing these projects, getting teachers connected to community partners they can continue to work with over the years. It enhances their curriculum and gets kids connected to real-world community issues. Because the teacher is engaged, the kids get engaged. And eventually, these kids may grow up to become the adults that serve their communities in these organizations.”