Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Teacher walks the talk

Runkel brings environmental lessons into the classroom

Express Staff Writer

Community School math and science teacher Scott Runkel has been recognized as the Environmental Advocate of the Year by the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau. Photo by David N. Seelig

For seventh-grade Community School math and science teacher Scott Runkel, leading by example and walking the talk are key components of a curriculum strong on environmental lessons.

From having students help retrofit a car to make it run on recycled cooking oil to encouraging them to conserve energy to help save salmon, Runkel's lessons teach students in an active way how they can make a positive influence on the environment in the course of their everyday lives.

For his leadership and advocacy for caring for the environment, Runkel has been recognized as the Environmental Advocate of the Year by the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau.

The modest 38-year-old Runkel professes that refraining from harmful everyday activities that pollute the environment and passing those ethics on to his students is all in a day's work.

"I need to be out there living in a way that is not contributing to all those problems," he said.

Although not a mechanic himself, Runkel and his students raised enough money several years ago to purchase a car so they could convert it to run on cooking oil. The project was a success largely because of the enthusiasm of the students involved, Runkel said.

"The students were huge," he said.

Another more recent project Runkel and his students have been involved with has looked at the impacts day-to-day decisions have on salmon survival in the Pacific Northwest. For the 2004-2005 school year, students participated in a field trip to the lower Snake River where, among other things, they swam in both free-flowing and impounded stretches of the river to see how dams affect the water flows that are so critical to salmon migration.

When asked if they would sacrifice everyday amenities that rely heavily on the cheap electrical supply that dams on the lower Snake River provide, if doing so would help save salmon runs, the students hesitated, Runkel said. After a school-wide energy saving project led to a significant lowering of the school's energy usage through simple energy-saving measures, however, the students were far more supportive of taking actions to save salmon, he said.

"It was clear we saved a significant amount of energy," Runkel said of the experiment. "They (the students) really wanted to save the fish."

Positive changes on issues like protecting the environment don't always have to come from policy makers, he said. "It would be great if it would happen from the top down, but I think what I'm doing is from the bottom up," Runkel said.

At home, Runkel, his wife, Naomi, and their two children work hard to lessen their impact on the environment as much as they can. To that end, the Runkel family only owns one car, they eat organic and locally grown food as much as possible, they compost and recycle religiously and they keep their heat set at no more than 60 degrees.

"So it's really cold in our house," Runkel said with a laugh.

Students are the perfect audience for the environmental message, Runkel said. "They're the ones that are going to be able to implement change," he said. "They are very receptive. They understand the issues."

Teaching has been a perfect avenue for achieving many things in his life, Runkel said.

"I get to do all the things I would want to do with my life, but don't have time for."

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