Libertyville High science teacher fosters students' environmental stewardship

Libertyville High science teacher fosters students' environmental stewardship

This past summer, Libertyville High School science teacher Dr. Jennifer Kahn attended a weeklong workshop aboard a research vessel on Lake Ontario.

Known for hands-on lessons with real-world implications, Kahn was working and learning alongside scientists on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ship Lake Guardian.

The focus on the ecological systems of the Great Lakes aligns well with her AP Environmental Science curriculum, which deals with local topics and issues, such as Lake Michigan as a drinking water source.

A passionate conservationist, Kahn strives to relate how scientists approach and try to solve real-world problems in lessons that extend beyond the classroom.

"It's science with context. It's science with real-world applications," Kahn said.

"We talk about climate change throughout the year. You have to understand how all systems relate to understand how changing systems affect components of the environment."

Kahn had been a systems analyst but changed careers to teaching. She began teaching chemistry at Libertyville nine years ago and became the first to teach environmental science when it became a new offering about five years ago.

She also is a sponsor to the Environment, Climate and Ocean Sustainability and Libertyville Environmental Action Force clubs, which focus on conservation and recycling and are engaged in a variety of activities and goals.

Clearing invasive species, installing thousands of native plants along the shoreline and monitoring the water quality and chemistry in Butler Lake, which borders a walking path and practice football field on the north side of the school, are ongoing class projects initiated by Kahn, carried out with students and incorporated into the curriculum.

So was transforming an unused courtyard into a native garden and living laboratory/outdoor classroom with a solar-powered water fountain.

And collecting monarch eggs from milkweed, raising them in the classroom and releasing them when grown to teach students about their life cycles and wondrous annual migration to Mexico.

"If there is an environmental issue on campus that Jen has not turned into a cause or contributed to fixing, I don't know of it," said LEAF adviser and retired English teacher Dave Lapish.

LHS Principal Tom Koulentes described AP Environmental Science as a "phenomenal class" because it asks students to draw on biology, chemistry, physics and ecology to understand the complexities of the natural world and propose solutions to many issues we face.

Kahn's strong knowledge of science helps students make connections between their previous courses and the lessons being taught.

"Jennifer is constantly finding authentic ways for students to apply the knowledge they are learning in the classroom to real-world projects that make a positive impact to our local environment," according to Koulentes.

By investigating fish die-offs, monitoring oxygen levels and other work at Butler Lake, for example, students have become "citizen scientists" who are deepening their knowledge.

During a recent AP Environmental Science class, students measured nitrate and phosphate in Butler Lake water samples collected an hour earlier. The focus is how water health affects the local ecosystem.

"I've been inspired to be more aware of the environment because of this class, and make an effort to do more of it," said junior Robby McDonell, who helped plant at Butler Lake.

Not a fan of chemistry, McDonell said he took the class on his neighbor's recommendation.

"This is the first science class I've been interested to take," he added.

That Kahn is his teacher is somewhat ironic. She said she always loved science but wasn't a "science kid" at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, where she grew up.

"I had to redo chemistry. Math and science were not my thing," she said.

That changed when she joined a new club to build and design experiments for NASA.

"That's the best thing that ever happened," she said.

The experience ignited Kahn's passion for science and led her to the national Student Space Involvement Program, a joint program between NASA and the National Science Teachers Association, to design a mission to Mars. Kahn was the winner from among 800 entries.

"It's incredibly powerful to stand in front of a group of students and say, 'I struggled with this,'" she said. "I felt I had an advantage in reaching the kids."

Koulentes said teaching today is about bringing diverse groups together as a class and finding the opportunities to ignite their curiosity, imagination and energy to work hard to make sense of a complicated world.

Kahn, he said, arrives early to organize lessons, is there late and on weekends tending to the gardens and projects students are creating, works phones and email to connect with government and nonprofit agencies, and writes grant requests for equipment and resources.

"Because of Jennifer's extraordinary efforts, LHS students graduate with a strong understanding and deep commitment to being environmental stewards," he said.

• • •

Tips from Top Teacher Jennifer Kahn

Top Teacher Jennifer Kahn shares tips for other educators:

• Build relationships: Showing interest in your students helps them understand that they are in a safe learning environment.

• Be an early adopter of technology: Never stop learning new technologies to ensure that your classroom and the tools you use remain relevant to students in a quickly changing world.

• Leverage technology to provide high-quality feedback: Develop self-regulated learners by providing the feedback that students need to adjust and grow.

• Experiment with real-world project work: Take risks by experimenting with project-based learning. Students readily engage with meaningful work!

• Keep learning: Stay enthusiastic about your field by participating in interesting teacher travel opportunities.

• • •

Curriculum vitae: Dr. Jennifer Kahn

School: Libertyville High School

Occupation: Science teacher; club sponsor (ECOS, LEAF); adjunct professor at College of Lake County (geology department)

Education: Glenbrook North High School; associate of arts and associate of science, College of Lake County; bachelor of arts, geosciences education, Western Governors University; master of science, geosciences, Mississippi State University; doctor of education, ethical leadership, Olivet Nazarene University

Previous work experience: Data analyst, desktop applications instructor

  Jennifer Kahn teaches environmental science at Libertyville High School. Joe Lewnard/
  James Fitzgerald of the Lake County Health Department, left, works with AP Environmental Science teacher Jennifer Kahn, center, and students as they survey fish and macroinvertebrates in Butler Lake last spring. Brian Hill/
  Jennifer Kahn teaches environmental science at Libertyville High School. Joe Lewnard/
Libertyville High School AP Environmental Science teacher Jennifer Kahn aboard the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's research vessel Lake Guardian on Lake Ontario. Courtesy of Jennifer Kahn
  Libertyville High School environmental science teacher Jennifer Kahn talks with students Tyler Tse, middle, and James Hughes as they work on a lab assignment. Joe Lewnard/
  Jennifer Kahn, AP Environmental Science teacher at Libertyville High School, explains how her classes are raising monarch butterflies to be tagged and released for their migration to Mexico. Mick Zawislak/, 2021
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