"A roly-poly lives in there!" she cried, pointing to a small hole in the stone she'd found. Other students abandoned their searches briefly to come check out the bug.
Lauren stepped to the edge of the garden, gingerly set the rock down, and waited for the small bug to crawl away. Then she brought her stone to the water-filled basin to continue the classroom exercise.
Saving a teeny life from drowning — and by extension, caring for the Earth's ecosystem — is exactly the sort of mindset teacher Robin Dosskey is hoping to impart to students.
Over the course of about four years — and with extra help from a $1,270 grant from nonprofit Partners in Education this summer — Dosskey and colleague Karen Lemoine have transformed the garden into an "outdoor science learning lab."
Dosskey uses the lab to breathe life into the state-mandated science curriculum, averring that young children, need, need need as much hands-on learning as possible. The recent exercise in which Lauren spared a pill bug was part of a unit on rocks and soil.
So fervent is Dosskey's belief in lessons kids can literally dig into that she has grabbed cool-looking rocks from friends' yards and construction sites to deposit in the garden and enthrall her young charges. She spent years adding coffee grounds to the clay soil to turn it from brick-like to life-giving. And when flies wouldn't land on the students' Venus fly traps, she encouraged them to try pill bugs.
The dirt-under-the-fingernails approach has a deeper goal, however.
"Soil is the new gold," Dosskey said, surveying the carrot patch.
As soil degradation draws increasing worldwide alarm and water grows scarcer, Dosskey sees the garden as a way to teach children to be stewards of valuable, shrinking resources. If tykes experience the hard work needed to transform clay soil to fertile humus, if they monitor water use and study plant growth, it's a good foundation for dealing with a world of increasingly scarce resources, according to the teacher.
Concern for soil has grown alongside global-warming anxiety from a murmur to clamor in the last couple years. Media from National Geographic and Scientific American to the New York Times have featured stories on no-till farming and studies on the world's vanishing fertility.
Sustainable agriculture features prominently in GoingGreen, an investment conference for innovators and venture capitalists that took place earlier this month in San Francisco.
The conference description asks: "Who are designing organic pesticides, livestock that require fewer inputs of hormones & antibiotics, hydroponic farms that use waste water and solar energy to grow food in warehouses, high-technology to expand locally grown food production? What companies and technologies are at the forefront of delivering this new and greener green revolution in agriculture?"
More aptly, which schools are?
At El Carmelo's outdoor science learning lab, nary a pill bug may be harmed. Young, fragile plants are protected not by using pesticide but with an up-ended container to act as a clear covering. And the attitude trickles down to students such as Lauren or Stephanie, who paused when a ladybug hopped from a stone onto her hand.
"It's a baby ladybug because it has no spots," Stephanie said, not moving her eyes from the tiny orange circle making its way across her palm.
Dosskey plans to keep expanding the outdoor lab. This summer's grant from Partners in Education — the group gave the district nearly $3 million last year and regularly doles out donations to teacher and student projects — allowed some improvements.
The science-loving teacher bought a trellis on which the students will grow vines. She hung additional bird feeders so students who have already studied butterflies and planted bushes to attract them will learn more about birds. She set up a bird bath, a sundial and a spider-web frame. She bought buckets to set up elevated plantings within the garden.
Last week, as children spilled out of the classroom and into the mini world of wonders to uncover rocks Dosskey had hidden Easter-egg style, there was only one rule.
"Use the stepping stones! Don't walk on the wooden beds!" Dosskey called.
Careful paths had been laid to keep little feet from trampling woodchip-scattered beds of flowers, carrots and other plants. Protect the dirt, Dosskey asked her young charges as they scampered about.