Zoe Chamberlain, Aiden Rodriguez Zoe Chamberlain and Aiden Rodriguez, students at Queen of Peace School in Salem, find life in a tidepool. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Zoe Chamberlain, Aiden Rodriguez Zoe Chamberlain and Aiden Rodriguez, students at Queen of Peace School in Salem, find life in a tidepool. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
SALEM — At Queen of Peace School here, the sprouting, crawling, dripping, flowing, cracking, buzzing world is a classroom.

It’s known as E-STEM, since the overarching environmental theme applies to the school’s science, technology, engineering and math offerings.

“Everything we do starts with being under the big umbrella of being stewards of God’s creation,” said Carl Mucken, principal of the preK-5 school in south Salem.

Some Queen of Peace teachers have been sent to the University of Notre Dame for fellowships on faith-based environmental learning, guided in large part by “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment and human thriving. The pope noted that care for the earth and care for the poor usually go together.

“The environment goes through all our curriculum,” said Mucken. “The biggest part of this is creating thinkers. We want kids who can think and apply that to real world problems.”

An afterschool club tracks the school’s energy use and proposes savings. A lunch club collects uneaten food, weighs and documents it, then works the scraps into the school’s compost beds.

Students plant, tend and harvest a school garden. Last year, the soil yielded so much produce that even after families took what they wanted, there was plenty left over for the parish program for food for the needy.

Queen of Peace staff set up a community recycling program, welcoming items such as plastic bags and even crayons, things that don’t go into the blue curbside bins.

The Queen of Peace campus is certified by the National Wildlife Federation as healthy habitat. The parish grounds include bird nesting boxes and feeders. The newest addition to the campus environment is a colony of mason bees, excellent pollinators who are not aggressive.

The pinnacle of environmental education at Queen of Peace is frequent field study. It goes well beyond the annual field trip.

Kindergartners head to Bush Park regularly to learn about matters like the mutually beneficial relationship between oak groves and squirrels. They sample soil for texture and temperature.

Older students raise trout and salmon in classrooms and take the fry to nearby streams.

Fourth graders focus on tidepools and sand, meaning trips to the Oregon Coast are in order. The class also goes on a whale watching tour out of Depoe Bay.

Fifth graders, the oldest kids on campus, get to make three trips to Mount Hood to study and analyze trees, birds and snowpack. The measurements they take, on snowshoe in winter, get passed on to federal wildlife rangers.

Fifth graders learn about the Clark’s nutcracker, a feisty bird able to ex-tract seeds from the tough cone of the whitebark pine. The birds get food and the trees get their seed spread, a match literally made in heaven.

Students at all levels keep journals with data and comments. They take notes at a pre-trip briefing, during trips and then in a lesson afterward. Teachers noticed that the quality of writing improves markedly as each year goes by. The children also learn to use gear like acidity probes, microscopes, wind meters and ground thermometers, all funded by enthused donors.

A team of three Queen of Peace science teachers guides the E-STEM program, planning field trips and assisting other teachers in blending ideas into every subject.

Bobbie Snead is retired environmental education chief for Salem public schools. She visited classrooms all over the area to show students animals and offer lessons. Snead asked Mucken if he’d like to get some-thing going at Queen of Peace. He said yes and hired her.

“We want to get kids in the real world out doing investigations like scientists do,” said Snead. “We talk about how we are here to take care of nature and be stewards of God’s creation.”

Students in the field usually don’t want to go home at the end of the day, said Maureen Foelkl, another of the science team. “They don’t realize the day is gone. We keep asking them what else they would like to know,” Foelkl said. “They are learning how to be problem solvers and how to work in teams.”

Science is a good way to come to know God’s creation, said the third teacher, Sally White. She hopes students are grateful for the world and learn that science — which is nothing more than asking questions and testing hypotheses — is one way to love God’s handiwork.