Vanier students try their hand at peeling garlic. Photo by Mike Chouinard

Comox Valley students learning about environment in their environment

New course at Vanier literally gets students out into field to learn about nature

This fall, many students in the community filled the streets in well-publicized climate strikes, along with their peers in communities all over the world.

Their passion was not a one-day event, but part of a commitment to re-imagining the ways we live. Because of recent changes in the provincial curriculum, this approach is informing practices in the classroom. This year, some Grade 11 students from G.P. Vanier Secondary are taking a new course, Environmental and Social Sciences, which combines some elements of geography and various scientific disciplines to interact directly with their environment.

The course includes trips to Courtenay Fish and Game Club, Deep Bay’s marine station, even Mt. Washington to consider cultural meanings behind the glacier. This is all a way to learn by seeing and doing, to look at how people are working within the local environment toward sustainability.

RELATED STORY: Large turnout for Cumberland climate strike

RELATED STORY: Courtenay climate strike draws hundreds to downtown core

In early October, they stopped by Amara Farm, operated by Arzeena Hamir, who also serves as a director on the Comox Valley Regional District, and her husband Neil Turner. Both have academic backgrounds in agriculture, but they wanted to put their knowledge to use at a farm.

Hamir started the tour giving the Vanier students an overview of how Amara operates.

“A big part of managing the farm is taking care of the soil,” she told the students.

The couple moved to the site about seven years earlier with an eye toward farming without chemicals and aiming to be as low-carbon as possible. Hamir talked about methods such as placing floating covers on crops to protect them from insects as opposed to using chemical controls.

“We have to keep track of everything we put on the farm,” she said. “It’s never the same day every day.”

The visit provided the students an opportunity to get their hands a little dirty by learning the basics of peeling and planting garlic.

Teachers Andrew Young and David Benton devised the new class, responding to the opportunities presented by the new, more flexible curriculum from the Province.

“It’s allowed us to do a cross- and co-curricular course,” says Young. “Kids can get a big picture idea of some of the environmental issues we confront…. It’s really about how we interact because we’re a part of nature.”

The class gets the students outside, which is all the more important when studying the ecosystem, and can sometimes, as in the visit to Amara, have the students exchange labour for knowledge.

“It’s through doing these actions that we’re going to remember it,” adds Benton.

The students seemed keen to get outside on the cold, clear morning. Zaphira Ey is a student who moved here from northern Alberta and has also lived in Gold River, so the Comox Valley feels like the big city. Still, there is plenty of nature around from which to learn.

“I’m really interested in the natural side of it,” she says. “I’m studying to be a marine biologist.”

Her family has a big acreage at home, so she is used to working on the land. She is also a competitive athlete, so she is aware of the importance of healthy food.

Another student, Chaya Mills, comes from Hornby Island and is familiar with farmers’ markets, so this is a chance to dig in when it comes to learning about food and nature.

“It makes me feel like I’m more involved,” she says. “It makes it feel so much more real.”

Mills sees this class as a chance to think about relevant questions and talk with her family as well as her classmates about environmental issues and what can be done.

“We talked a lot about solutions,” she adds.

The Environmental and Social Sciences course for Grade 11 students at Vanier is only one of the many things students, teachers and whole school communities are doing to incorporate the environment into classrooms and daily routines. Serina Allison oversees these kinds of initiatives for the district as its environmental outdoor learning (EOL) teacher.

“It’s a brand-new program,” she says. “It’s somewhat unique.”

She works with school communities, First Nations and other partners to look for ways to collaborate and support teachers. For example, students have undertaken activities with the Courtenay Fish and Game Club to replant the habitat.

“Most of us learn the best through doing,” she says. “Place-based education is a really big thing right now.”

Allison also points out this program fits in well with the school district’s new strategic plan, which has the environment as a major component.

RELATED STORY: Catchment review for Comox Valley Schools on horizon

She works with representatives at each school to lay out what the program should look like to tackle a lot of themes such as the climate crisis, global issues, Indigenous learning, water issues and so on. The work starts with hands-on things for youngest students and adds more leadership components as students move into higher grades.

Right now, there are many things happening through School District 71. For example, Allison says, there will be a youth conference through Isfeld Secondary in February to respond to the climate strike and what to do locally. As well, there will be professional development opportunities for teachers in line with this.

Other examples throughout School District 71 include nature-based education at Cumberland and a waste inventory project at Airport Elementary. One student at Vanier even came up with an idea for the school to replace single-use cutlery.

“Students are really, really engaged in it,” Allison says. “We’ve created change here.”

RELATED STORY: Comox Valley student aiming to cut out single-use plastics within the district and beyond

Students, teachers and administrators are all leading when it comes to responding to important challenges facing the environment, and taking steps beyond placards at a climate rally to consider how the school system can prepare people for the challenges we are facing now and in the future.

“We still have a lot of room for growth,” Allison adds.

For more information about the program, see

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Student Zaphira Ey (left) listens while Arzeena Hamir gives the class a tour of Amara Farm. Photo by Mike Chouinard

Chaya Mills plants some garlic blubs. Photo by Mike Chouinard

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