La Tercera Elementary School students show of STEM skills in showcase

When La Tercera Elementary School applied for a local educational grant to create a new garden on campus, it was denied.

So on Thursday, sixth-graders at the school presented their own version of what just such a garden might look like, and it looked pretty good.

The project was part of a weeklong showcase of the school’s 344 students’ Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) knowledge. One of the sixth-graders’ tasks was to lay out a garden using a computer program. In her garden, Aaliyah Williams, 11, wanted to focus on drought-tolerant plants native to Petaluma, while also promoting the idea of biodiversity.

She chose strawberries, willow trees and another plant called toothwort milkmaid, which produces little white flowers that “bees love,” Williams said, excitedly.

“Bees love them. Butterflies love them. Hummingbirds love them,” she said. “And willows are a good tree because they provide a lot of habitat for birds, squirrels, insects and many different types of animals.”

She said she learned about the idea of biodiversity in one of her science labs this fall, and wanted to incorporate that into the garden. Pretty upper-level thinking for a sixth-grader, but that’s the point, said Principal Michele Crncich Hodge.

“All the synapses are firing because she started to think about its relevancy to the world,” Crncich Hodge said. “We want to give our kids real-life experiences for their learning. ... I don’t know how many times I would sit there (in school) and think, ‘Why do I care about this? I don’t care about this. It doesn’t relate to my life.’ And I would turn off.”

All of the Petaluma school’s students participated, with each grade level tasked with a different question to answer.

On Wednesday, the school’s fifth-graders presented their ideas for a “greener cleaner,” an eco-friendly cleaning solution to replace the more caustic chemicals no longer allowed in classrooms.

“It’s a real question,” Crncich Hodge said. “It’s a real problem that we have at La Tercera, and that’s the power of project-based learning. It’s an inquiry about something real.”

The students learned about natural chemicals that clean in their science class, then were divvied up into eight teams and created solutions they thought would work best. On Wednesday, the kids tested the solutions without knowing which team’s solution was which, and voted on the one they thought had the most cleaning power. In the end, the solution with salt, borax, ginseng, lemon juice, water, vinegar and Dawn soap won.

That cleaning solution will be created in larger batches and given to the teachers and janitor.

“In a traditional classroom we don’t ask kids to make their learning relevant,” Crncich Hodge said. “That is the key to engagement, and engagement is the key to making our kids problem solvers.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or

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