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Dr. Grauer's Column - Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability at The Grauer School

Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability at The Grauer School

“A revolutionary, collaborative commitment”

The Grauer School Faculty, Student Body and Board of Trustees, in an unprecedented and revolutionary, collaborative commitment, have dedicated the 2019-2020 school year to promoting climate and ecological sustainability and stewardship in our school community and beyond. This courageous resolution is transforming virtually every aspect of the School.

Background: The planet appears heading toward 1.5 degrees (F) of global warming as soon as 2030 unless we enact “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” a dire United Nations report warned in October 2018. Scientists predict that by 2050 the volume of plastics in our oceans will equal the volume of animal life in the ocean, and that by the end of the century 50% of the world’s species will be extinct. If you’re under thirty, “you’re all but guaranteed to witness the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought.” [1] This is the briefest sketch of the mounting conditions facing us as a school community. 

Grauer students Arabel M. '19 and Thalia M. '20 being interviewed by Claire Trageser, NPR investigative reporter, about their thoughts on climate change - September 4, 2019

At The Grauer School, we are committed to developing a community grounded in our shared values and commitments. Grauer’s “expeditionary learning” tradition develops students who are passionate and curious about the natural world, and confident and empowered in their education. Students go far beyond in-class curricular learning as they form the personal bonds and long-range purposes the world needs of them. 

Our school mascot, the Grauer’s Gorilla, was selected decades ago as a symbol of an endangered species that perseveres despite odds—never has our motto been more relevant to us. Our work as educators and environmental stewards will be successful once all of our students have learned to connect the dots from things like single-use plastic all the way to the fate of the gorilla. Enjoy this document, which details how this is occurring at Grauer. 

I.  In Class

Here are a few sample examples of the activities our teachers are implementing.  


  • Marine Biology: Students perform weekly water quality tests in our local beaches through Blue Water Task Force (a partner of Surfrider Foundation); perform fish and microplastic surveys under guidance from local marine biologists; dive into the Keeling Curve and its implications; interpret climate data and learn about commercial fishing practices and fish/invertebrate farms.
  • Chemistry/Physics: Students learn about power generation (i.e., nuclear fission versus fusion) and renewable energy; how solar photovoltaics make solar energy harvesting more efficient and less expensive; and microplastic impacts and evaluation of the budding industry of biodegradable materials to replace plastics.
  • Environmental Science: Through personal change projects, students embark on semester long data collection, research, and action on a conservation interest. Research: What happens when cities grow, as soil and nature are replaced by asphalt and concrete?

Grauer's Physics class learning about acceleration and air resistance by dropping (and then eating) a watermelon harvested from the Grauer Garden - September 9, 2019


  • US History: Students are studying the Birth of Conservation and national parks, and the creation of the EPA. Students are exploring: What is my relationship to the natural world? Who is responsible for protecting it? (The unit culminates with an overnight in Joshua Tree National Park.) 
  • World History: Students examine the long-term environmental effects of industrialization and imperialism (loss of indigenous ways), urbanization/pollution, the adoption of fossil fuels for transportation and electricity generation more than a century ago, and the industrial and cultural effects of mining/deforestation.


  • Statistics: Investigating statistical evidence for climate change (100 year trends in average and peak temperatures, CO2 measurements, Arctic snow cover, global wildfire incidence, etc.) 
  • Calculus: Modelling a predator-prey (2-species) ecosystem mathematically and analyzing when such species interactions are sustainable
  • Geometry: Investigating the costs and benefits of outfitting all of The Grauer School rooftops with solar panels; assisting in school garden calculations
  • Algebra II: Modelling our carbon footprint using multi-step linear inequalities 
  • Pre-Calculus: Using project-based learning to explore how water gets to our area and the varying environmental impacts of the systems.


  • English 7: Students read Kamkwamba's memoir "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind". Tying into his incredible story of service to his community and the environment, students groups identify compelling environmental issues and write a call to action.
  • English 10: Students read Nestor's book: "Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells us About Ourselves". Students expand on how we are more like cetaceans than we think and other mysteries of the ocean that we call our close neighbor. 
  • English 12: Senior Service Seminar Project: Students study indigenous ways and climate activists. The course is substituting literature that focuses on all life for some traditional literature that holds the human being above all else.

II. Cross-Curricular and Beyond

The world’s great problems must be addressed across disciplines, in and out of class. Outside of class and curriculum study, The Grauer School treats the development of student ecological intelligence through:

Expeditionary and global learning and connection
Cross curricular collaborations
Campus culture and spirit
Ecological and humanitarian service

A)  Expeditionary Learning

For decades, Grauer has led the way nationwide in expeditionary learning. Expeditions are an extraordinary, defining, life-changing part of The Grauer School experience and give students opportunities to practice our core values of resourcefulness, compassion, and humanitarian service across cultures. Each expedition is developed around an educational theme, whether it is environmental restoration, wilderness experiences, cross-cultural immersion (such as school visits), humanitarian work, team building, college exploration, or intensive skill development in diverse areas such as film and music. (Grauer must now seek a more energy-neutral van pool.)

Grauer students prepare for their Fall 2019 camping expedition by learning how to put up a tent - September 10, 2019

Each year, our students participate in around 15 expeditions and 100 field trips in our community and around the globe. Here is a sampling of recent expeditions:

  • Portraits of California: This expedition honors our California coast. Students explore aspects of spirituality, photography, naturalism, and surfing to capture true portraits of our great state. 
  • Journey to Bahia del los Angeles: Students travel to Estación del Mar Cortés to immerse themselves in the pristine and complex natural environment and Mexican culture. Activities include swimming with whale sharks, fishing, hiking and exploring coastal coves. 
  • Catalina Environmental Leadership Program: Students spend their days kayaking, hiking, snorkeling, learning about ecosystems and the Native American cultures from the area, and understanding the important role of the ocean in the health of the biosphere. Service-learning projects include invasive plant removal, trail building, organic gardening, planting native flora, and composting.
  • Zion National Park: Students learn the transformative power of the natural world and their role in preserving it through workshops in science, the arts, and fitness. 
  • Kenyan Connections: This expedition focusses on local culture, wildlife and service. Students travel to Daraja Academy, an all-girls boarding school supported in part by the Grauer Girl Rising Club, visit local villages, and serve at an orphanage. Trip concludes with an overnight wildlife safari. 
  • Ecuador, The Sacred World of the Shaman: The traditional shamanic world-view teaches us to treat life as shared and sacred. Students study the old ways with native healers and naturalists in the mountains of Ecuador. (Indigenous lifestyles exemplify life with no carbon footprint.)

B)  A Six-Acre Natural Paradise

Nowhere is our commitment to ecological stewardship more evident than on our own campus. The Grauer School has dedicated 40% of its total land to natural, wild preserve which we maintain and study. Interpretive trails through coastal sage and maritime chaparral invite both aimless and aimed wandering in and out of class. Lizards, hummingbirds, owls, wrens, endangered gnatcatchers, 4 different kinds of sparrows and lots more kinds of birds; squirrels, woodrats and snakes, 24 kinds of butterflies all cross paths with our students.

All around campus, native succulents, slope-side California poppies, and native plants and the legendary Torrey pines abound. Ocean breezes drift over the hillside all day—in 5 minutes, our surfers can be riding some of our continent’s best waves, which we monitor for water quality.

C)  A Campus in Support of Sustainability

All Grauer Faculty members have signed our “2019-20 Faculty Eco-Stewardship Pledge” committing to carbon footprint reducing personal practices. Our board finance committee must examine our school investment practices to address our external impacts.

Carbon neutrality is a medium range, schoolwide goal. From the pens and coffee cups we purchase to the weekly assembly topics to our fertilizing practices, sustainability and sensitivity our natural environment is a pervasive part of Grauer culture. Solar panels generate most of Grauer's energy and our Phase III buildings are LEED Gold-certified. (Grauer recently completed a $50,000 LED bulb retrofit.)

Across the curriculum, year-round both in and out of class, and at special events, students are prompted, surveyed, and engaged in developing their environmental intelligence. Schoolwide student clubs, events, assembly presentations, and fundraisers constantly support environmental causes such as Ocean’s United or Surfrider. The students have created and empowered a student body Vice President of Sustainability.

All-school practices such as food waste control and composting, electric vehicle parking, no-idle parking lot zones, ban on plastic bottles and utensils, farm to table growing, coffee grounds and other campus recycling practices, paperless offices (a huge challenge for schools), and many other practices enable Grauer to practice what it preaches.

The Green Grauer Garden team gardening with the Grauer chickens - September 6, 2019

D)  Green Grauer Parent Gardening

Our parent gardening group called “Green Grauer” meets in our gardens weekly to support and advance the kind of community that feels safe, inclusive, healthy, and connected. Almost every class visits our gardens, orchard, chicken coop, tree house or native habitat sandy wash. Green Grauer influences our school community to eat locally, plant-based based diets and to reduce food wastage, which has huge impacts on climate change.

E)  A Culture of Service and Perspective

Student groups, classes, and clubs all are giving of themselves regularly towards environmental causes. Last year’s 160 students served 4000 hours. Grauer’s Girl Rising club connects the huge but often ignored link between family planning, population control, and carbon footprint.

Conclusion: Today, 4% of the world’s mammals on earth, by weight, are wild animals. As teachers and citizens, we know our students are not inheriting the world or climate we inherited or ever imagined. We are facing an extinction crisis as a function of habitat loss, a basis of climate change. We have a moral imperative to prepare our students for an unknown but new kind of world.

The Grauer School faculty, student body, and trustees have committed to a global movement that calls for intelligent stewardship of earth’s precious ecosystems, starting on our own campus. We cannot save the forests of the world. The Grauer School leadership is aware that our efforts may be insubstantial relative to the crisis at hand, hence our largest purpose is essentially the development of a sustainable, ethical, caring and joyful community, doing the right thing for its own sake.

"Tell your students the environment today needs more action, to prevent land degradation, animal extinction, vegetation destruction and we can reduce the impact of climate change. This is our time for action. I recommend the action of young people, e.g. planting of trees, environmental protection, advocacy that can reduce activities such as pollution.”
—Golden Mbaula Phiri, former student of Grauer teacher Patricia Young, from Action Aid International, Malawi, Africa

[1] What If We Stopped Pretending? Jonathan Franzen, The New Yorker, September 8, 2019

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Grauer students Arabel M. '19 and Thalia M. '20 being interviewed by Claire Trageser, NPR investigative reporter, about their thoughts on climate change - September 4, 2019

Grauer's Physics class learning about acceleration and air resistance by dropping (and then eating) a watermelon harvested from the Grauer Garden - September 9, 2019

The Green Grauer Garden team gardening with the Grauer chickens - September 6, 2019

Grauer students prepare for their Fall 2019 camping expedition by learning how to put up a tent - September 10, 2019

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