Bronx teacher David Merriman wins environmental education award for innovative classroom projects


Marble Hill School for International Studies teacher David Merriman was awarded the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality annual Environmental Education Award on June 12 for his efforts in the classroom.

And especially outside it.

Merriman credits his work in the Enchanted Garden for his winning the award. The Enchanted Garden is an outdoor space on the John F. Kennedy Campus established in the 70s. When Merriman began teaching at the Marble Hill School in 2016 he was a new to the campus and to teaching, but soon discovered the garden tucked away on the grounds and realized the potential for the outdoor classroom for his ninth-grade environmental science class. 

“You’d be surprised how much is down there,” Merriman said. “There’s this little half-acre garden and its just surrounded by roads and parking lots. Despite all that there’s quite a bit of wildlife.” 

Every year, Merriman conducts the same final project with his students in which they collect and identify insects from the garden. The class half-buries items like paint cans leaving the top open for bugs to crawl in, then they pull the cans out to identify everything they’ve caught before releasing the insects back into the garden. 

This year, Merriman’s class collected nearly 500 bugs and identified 148 of them as ants, with others including pill bugs, centipedes, spiders and earthworms. 

“It gives the students an opportunity to see what a real scientific field study is like,” Merriman said. 

He said older classes have asked if he stills runs the “bug project” with his ninth-grade class, which he said makes him feel as though he’s leaving an impression on the children.

Part of Merriman’s inclination toward field research is preparing his students for careers in science in which they would perform research much like the experiments in his classroom. He said he wants to prepare students and potentially get them excited about a new field of study. 

“I studied insects for my senior thesis in undergrad so it’s kind of my area,” Merriman said. “I find it very intriguing to find the things you would never really think about being there but are all over the place.” 

After graduating with his bachelor’s in biology, Merriman was unsure what he wanted to do, so he joined the Peace Corps where he was sent to volunteer in Liberia. It was there he experienced his first classroom, teaching science to children in difficult circumstances without textbooks or electricity.

Unfortunately, Merriman’s Peace Corps service was cut short due to an Ebola outbreak. But when he returned to the United States, he began his studies to earn a masters degree so he could start his teaching career. 

“I have been very fortunate to have such a wide variety of experiences,” Merriman said. “I’m very thankful I get to do something I’m passionate about.” 

Merriman said his teaching goal is to engage students with new experiences and opportunities that can provide them with new perspectives. He said if he can connect what he’s passionate about to his student’s lived experiences, it produces the highest level of engagement. 

Another project Merriman ran in his classroom surrounded the discussion of nuclear power and its human impact.

With the use of nuclear power, there is public concern about how to properly dispose of nuclear waste, which can remain dangerous and radioactive for thousands of years. Merriman’s project poses the question to his students of how to send a warning to people in the future that will last in regards to the volatility of nuclear waste. Merriman said he enjoys activities like these because it stretches the students. 

“There’s no right answer, there’s just different ways of approaching it and I’m always interested to see different ways students approach it because they always get creative,” Merriman said. 

In another lesson several years ago, he discussed the possibility of daylighting Tibbetts Brook, bringing a portion of the brook aboveground and creating a green space alongside it. Back then, the discussion was a mere thought exercise but, with approval earlier this year for the project to be completed, Merriman was honored all over again to receive his award considering the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality’s role in making the project happen. 

Merriman said after eight years of teaching he is still gaining perspective on how he impacts his students. When students reach out to him and share their appreciation for help with a question, or that a student became interested in science after taking his class, he said those are the moments that make his work worth it. 

“You get perspective on how important your work is,” Merriman said. “You never would have realized as you were teaching them.”

David Merriman, Marble Hill School, Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, Environmental Education Award, Enchanted Garden, environmental science, hands-on projects, ninth-grade science, field research, student engagement