OAKLAND -- At Peralta Elementary School, the line between art and science is as fuzzy as the native bees children are studying this year.
In Ana Thomas's fourth-grade classroom this week, students would eventually split into teams to sketch their species of choice for an educational pop-up book -- the mason bee, the sweat bee, the digger bee and yes, even the head-bonker bee.
But first, they talked about their structures and shapes, why these often-feared insects are so important to have around and how they interact with humans. So many students raised their hands during the class discussion -- some persisting for what seemed like minutes at a time -- that Thomas tapped a student to referee.
"I just had another idea for a fact on the back," one boy said, about the nature primer-in-progress. "We could say how many flowers a bee can pollinate in its lifetime."
Environmental stewardship is a central tenet at the North Oakland school, which won a National Blue Ribbon Award last year from the U.S. Department of Education. Its teaching philosophy leans heavily on the arts -- an effort heavily funded by grants and parent fundraising -- as a medium for learning.
The small campus off Alcatraz Avenue has gardens in just about every corner, including a new one designed just for native bees. With art teacher Ellen Oppenheimer, other children are making a painted and tie-dyed quilt, commissioned by the library, of the California landscape
Through short, hand-drawn animations, Peralta students have explained photosynthesis, trash elimination and the water cycle. They've told the story of Yosemite Valley and how land in Oakland changed over time, a project that the Oakland Museum of California is interested in featuring as a permanent installation in its new natural sciences wing, said Trena Noval, an arts integration specialist who works alongside Thomas and other classroom teachers to produce the animations.
"Part of the stewardship program is to really understand the place where they live, the history of the land and the ecosystem they live on and how to take care of it so they can have a healthy community to live on," Noval said.
Half of the school's grade levels are involved in the native bee research project in some way. Some planted seeds for the garden, which will be used for research and observation (and sketching). Thomas's students will use the book they're making to teach first-graders about what they've learned.
Last year, with Noval and their classroom teacher, Kelly Rozario, fourth-graders produced an animation featuring a real cacao farm in Ecuador that was contaminated by an oil leak. Through drawings and text, they explained how fungi can actually clean up toxins in the soil, an approach known as micromediation.
The elementary school's orchestra provided the soundtrack.
Mia Rose Maltz, a microbiologist now at UC Irvine who has researched micromediation for years, explained the science to the students; today, she is using their work to help others understand it, Noval said. This summer, Noval will travel to Ecuador to visit the farm on a Fund for Teachers grant.
Ruby Foxall, Sofia Kaplan and Anya Tucker, now fifth-graders, said the Miraculous Fungi project was eye-opening, especially since it involved a real farmer.
"We thought it was really unfortunate what they did to her," Sofia said, referring to the eroding oil pipeline that ran through the woman's property.
The girls said they were proud of what their class had done. They like to imagine people around the world watching their six-minute animation and feeling hopeful about the possibilities of toxic waste cleanup.
"I've always wanted to know how you can stop pollution and make the world a better place," Ruby said.
It makes sense to explain science through art, she said. "Even though everybody can't understand one language, everybody can understand a picture."