Starting a Community-based Natural Resource Education Program


Strategies for Authentic Community Engagement

Authors Patrick Willis Oregon State University Extension 4-H Portland, Oregon

Susan Cross Environmental Educator Tucson, Arizona

Almost every school has a natural area very nearby. It could be that marshy place behind the school, the little stream or “ditch”, the unmowed field, or the patch of woods beside the parking lot. These natural areas are often overlooked as learning sites, or if they are recognized, they are not acted upon because we do not know exactly how to start using them. The intent of this article is to provide educators with a platform to begin natural resource programming at sites near their school. Philosophical as well as pragmatic information is shared to provide both intrinsic and conceptual connections for educators to engage youth in authentic community involvement in the natural resources. This information is intended to offer support, ideas, encouragement and new ways to think about what we do as educators. It is meant to inspire you and move you to action.

It is our hope that through programs that link schools with natural resource areas, citizen awareness and community involvement will increase. The vision is for schools to become vital resources for their communities and that students, through real world projects, become active participants in their society.

BEETLES-2Why connecting students with natural resource areas have educational benefits.

A strong connection to the larger world community starts with an intimate local understanding. Children can apply knowledge of systems and concepts learned in a personal experiential world to global problems. Once they grasp the value and function of the forest, wetland, grassland or watershed in their school backyard, it is a short step to awareness about other watersheds or wetlands that they see in their own community, or to a concern about global environmental issues they hear about in the media. A personal stake in the lives of their wood ducks, red-tailed hawks or metamorphosing moths becomes an intrinsic understanding of the richness present in all ecosystems. A program such as this taps the innate desire of children to care for their world and allows them to do just that: to help, to clean up, to make better homes for wildlife, to gather information to guide decision making. It empowers them at the local level and gives us all a much needed assurance that active informed citizens can and DO make a difference.

Students involved in active hands on programs also feel better about the way they are learning. The students report that they have more fun and feel like they are learning things that they didn’t know before. Teachers say that their students really retain more of what they learn and can apply the learning in other situations.

In these times of being overwhelmed by environmental problems on every front, it is easy for people to lose their sense of hope and to feel defeated in the face of such looming concerns. This can be especially hard on young people, who have been inundated since early childhood with the magnitude of our planet’s problems. Working with young people in settings where they can impact an area in a positive way is a powerful tool to help them realize the healing potential they have as caring human animals.

Getting Started

Many educators find the idea of starting a program such as this to be intimidating…And it can be!! Teachers already have heavy workloads. It often feels as though there isn’t enough time in the day to prepare for classes, grade the day’s papers and still get to eat lunch! The extra work required to implement an on-going, in the field/community program can indeed loom large in the picture and cause many people to give up before they even begin.

WisdomProjectSites and Site Selection

The initial step is to find a site around which to center your program. The site is an integral part of the program because it becomes the focal point for community involvement. Because of time limitations in our schools, the closer the site is to the school door the better. The site doesn’t need to be huge or elaborate. It can be the little ditch on the school grounds, it could be the marsh on private land across the street, it could be the little patch of forest left in an urban development, it could even be something that you restore or develop on your own school grounds. The ability to visit the site frequently outweighs any lack of “wildness.” In the reality of today’s shrinking school budgets, transportation money is drying up. A site within walking distance solves this problem, and makes all logistics easier.

After you determine what site or sites you may be able to use for your program you will need to find out as much as possible about the site. In an ideal situation, this entire process can be done by your students. You will want to find out who owns the property. Who is in charge of managing it? Can you use the site as a study center? Are there special things about the site? Is it a protected area? How will you minimize the impact of your student’s presence at the site? Get maps of the local area. Talk to homeowners associations and neighborhood businesses. Can you do enhancement work there? How could the site be improved for wildlife or educational uses? What kind of information would it be useful to have about the site? Who might best use that information? What is the history of the site? Are there any cultural values?

When you find out who is involved with your site you may be surprised to learn that those people need your student staff to collect information as much as you need them for their expertise. Some sites may be in private ownership and you may have to seek permission to use the land as a study site. This process in itself can be quite a learning experience for your students. Many schools are lucky enough to have natural areas on their own grounds, but you may still need permits to make changes. Each place has its own unique combination of political circumstances just as each place has its own unique natural character. Let the problems you encounter become learning challenges. Help your students learn about how the world outside the classroom operates. The problems you face will lead to the development of valuable life-long learning skills.

Willingness to Change Attitudes and Structures

Often the success of innovative programs depends on our ability to think in new ways. Change is never easy and is especially hard to create in institutional settings. It is difficult to envision new roles for ourselves and new shapes for our old models. With the momentum for educational change coming from the state level, the atmosphere for programs of this type is good, and you could be on the leading edge of this change. The watchword of the hour is flexibility.

salmon9altChanging Teacher Roles

In this kind of program the teachers may have to recreate the way they interact not only with their students but also with their peers and administrators. You may find yourself much more of a coordinator and learning manager than a deliverer of set curriculum. You may find that the most important function you can serve is finding access for your students to partnership opportunities with other adult instructors. You may spend your time locating project ideas, equipment and funds rather than directly teaching lessons. You may need to spend time on the phone coordinating an event or writing proposals to fund your program’s newsletter. It is not the role you are probably most familiar with and it can seem like a leap into the unknown. It can also lead to personal growth and a great deal of fulfillment as your program blossoms.

Changing Educational Models

Everyone involved in education agrees that our current model doesn’t seem to be working. Students are not entering the adult world prepared to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing and complex world. Demand for people who can work cooperatively, be self motivated learners and understand complex systems is growing in every field of endeavor. Schools somehow need to provide their students with opportunities to learn the skills of citizen action, exposing them to processes and systems both natural and social. Students need to have real world experiences with real world consequences. Programs such as this can offer those opportunities. Schools could be in the business of finding community needs that aren’t being met. Schools could become a resource for the community instead of being viewed as a drain on resources. The school, through a program, could provide opportunities for students to interact with their community and society using meaningful projects that need to be accomplished. A great deal of excitement and motivation builds around an idea when students are producing work for a real world audience with a real world purpose. Think of the schools as a pool of highly educated leaders with a large motivated work force that just needs to be focused and applied to the needs of the community!

The Time Issue

Time, or the feeling of never having enough time, is a stumbling block in the initiation of Community-based programs. How much time should be allocated for activities related to the project? How will the teachers involved find time to organize materials, field work and special events? Is one day each month enough field contact? Perhaps one day each week may be needed. How will this program fit in with music, social studies or math? Is a 45 minute period enough time to get out into the field, do a study, and then get back? All these time questions are quite valid and need to be explored. But our attitudes, those hidden assumptions behind our time feelings also need to be explored. How did our school day come to be fragmented into 40-45 minute blocks? Does it have to be that way? Can our scheduling be more flexible without a loss of quality?

Using a thematic or project based approach to interweave your Community-based program into several subject areas can increase the amount of time spent in the field or community. Math can serve to interpret collected field data. Art could be the designing of logos or signs for the site. Music could involve songs written about the area and performed at a school wide celebration. Pursuing permission to have use of a site, or to make changes at a site, could serve as lessons in political science. Keeping journals or producing an informative newsletter is a natural for writing and language.

You Don’t Need to be an Expert

A general fear many educators experience is that they will be asked about something they don’t know. When beginning a program that involves a natural resource area there will be tons of things you don’t know, and that will be part of the excitement. As teachers we have the feeling that we should always be able to answer every question like an expert; but we may want to consider that the “teacher-as-learner” may be a more powerful model than the “teacher-as-dispenser-of-all-knowledge”. Being able (and willing) to say, “I don’t know, but let’s see if we can find out,” is a virtue in an educator, not a sin. Think of the program as an opportunity for you and your students to learn about an ecosystem together. Curiosity, enthusiasm and access to good reference materials are far more important than teachers having all the specific information on a particular environment locked away in their brain.

Program Planning for Administration Support

Having the support of your administrator may allow you to arrange for time to do planning for and coordination of your program. With good administrative support and communication, substitute time may be possible for planning, attending development classes or for special field programming for your students. It is almost impossible for teachers to teach a regular load and to just add on another program. Realistically the teacher who takes on a project of this sort will need time and support from their school. Your formal proposal may give your administrator a powerful tool for acquiring a commitment from your school board or district for that extra time you will need.

Project Plan Outline

Another important part of beginning a program is the time spent early on in the planning phase. If you take the time to examine your hopes and limitations, to determine what your goals are and to commit those to paper, you will have come a very long way toward establishing something concrete to build the program on.

The proposal form (Figure 1) will help you create a document you can use to approach school administrators, fellow staff members, and potential partners. It will help you clarify your group’s goals and priorities. Your proposal form, or “white paper” describes the vision and who should participate, the benefits of participation, and the benefits to the community. In addition, the project plan often contains language very useful in future grant proposals. Whether your project is simple or complex, you and your group will benefit from taking the time to ask yourselves the questions contained in the form.


Community-based Program Strategies

You have a program proposal, you have administration support, there is building enthusiasm for the project…what do you do next? The following are tested and well established examples about how to generate and sustain interest in the program as it develops.

Create an Identity

Your students and others involved in the project will have much more ownership if the site you have chosen has a name or an identity. It is probably more powerful to have the students highly involved in the process of creating an image for the site rather than having an image imposed on them. You will want to guide them in coming up with an attractive logo that can be used on your future newsletters, correspondences, signs and t-shirts. You may want to consider letting people know what your purpose is in the construction of the name. Are you a resource center, a study center, a technology center, or something else? Is there some special plant, animal or geographic feature at your site that would make a good symbol or icon?

schoolsthatchangeIncrease Community Contact

Support for your program will grow if people know about what you are doing. Cultivate a relationship with your local media. Let them know when your students will be out in the field, when you are putting up a sign to identify your site or have special activities planned. Your students can write and publish a website or a simple, informative newsletter about their involvement and successes. Invite partners and potential donors or other influential people in your community to observe what your students are doing. People often like to jump on the bandwagon of an interesting project and partnerships can develop from public knowledge of the program.

Create a Student Leadership Component in Planning

You can plan yourself silly, but if the project doesn’t have student ownership and support your plans will soon sink with apathy or resistance. Students need to feel like it is their program. They need to be active citizens in the process right from the beginning. Having student representation at the planning level will lend legitimacy to tasks proposed for students to accomplish. It can be a powerful growth experience for the students involved.

Spend Some Time on Aesthetics

If you think back to your own interest in the natural world it is usually linked very closely with a sense of place. Allow your students time in their special environment to observe the natural world in a holistic way. Love of the natural world doesn’t come from performing pH tests. It comes from watching spiders build their webs or resting in the sun in tall grasses and listening to a killdeer sing. Set up intentional aesthetic activities for your students early on in the program. You’ll end up with strong advocates for the site. Emotional responses to the environment are not irrational responses; and emotional ties to place are often the best motivations to action!


Approaching Resource People

Depending on your circumstances you may want to use resource people as special advisors or you may want to form partnerships with one or more of them that includes actually working on projects that they are involved with. Resource people as guest speakers in the classroom probably has limited value. If you can arrange for your students and staff members to work directly with resource people it can lead to much larger rewards for everyone. Because most resource people have many duties in their job descriptions, they are busy people. If you can approach them with detailed specific needs and directions about how they might help you with their expertise, their time will be used much more effectively.

Funding Ideas

Money always seems to be a limiting factor in program development, but don’t let a lack of funds discourage you. Many activities can be done without much money. Exploring and getting to know the site, doing plant and animal inventories, making maps, observations of seasonal changes or planning an awareness celebration for the school or community can all be accomplished with a minimum of funds.

Keeping the community and the media aware of your plans and goals can lead to opportunities for donations from businesses such as volunteers, money, equipment or supplies. Parent/Teacher organizations can be a source of funding as well as a source of volunteer helpers. Motivated students can also be excellent fund raisers using all those time proven school fund raising techniques. You and your students may also be able to come up with a product associated with your site such as t-shirts with a logo, wildlife art or photography from the site, or some other product or service. Cities or counties may be able to donate time or materials. Agencies sometimes have funding for plantings or restoration work. Cities and agencies may be able to provide tools and advice from staff people.

There is always the potential for grant writing as a source for funds. This approach to raising money is often available but comes with the fears of how to get started, who to ask, what to say and, of course, finding the time to write the grant. Another factor to consider is the fear of getting the grant. Most granting organizations require you to do what you promised in the grant! This is where your program plan becomes a valuable resource. A good plan is the first step in approaching a funding source. As for who to ask for funding, the list of possibilities can be overwhelming. Start with a few inquiries with local agencies and ask others who have written grants. Most people are very supportive and helpful. If you stay with a reasonable plan, your program will blossom with the assistance of a grant and not degrade into unfulfilled dreams.

River of Power 2004 013Field Techniques

Many teachers feel uncomfortable taking their students outdoors. It is a much less structured setting and chaos can quickly ensue. A bad field experience can leave a leader longing for those wonderful rows of desks back in the building. Field study does require some special skills and planning, but the harvest you and your students reap is rich!

There are some risks being in the natural world, from twisted ankles to bee stings; but the possible rewards far outweigh the risks. Safety is an important concern in the field. Make sure you have a first aid kit with you and know what to do in an emergency. You may want to check on your school’s insurance policies for field settings. Many risk factors can be greatly reduced by explaining clearly to your students what your expectations are for behaviors in the field.

Setting the same kind of clear behavior expectations for the field as you have in your regular classroom is essential. Let students know that you have boundaries that they must respect, being sure to be clear about what areas are off limits and why. Have set work areas for each group. It is often easier to explain tasks and rules inside the normal classroom setting before you set off into the outdoors to do your field work.

Spending a bit of time on field ethics is a valuable thing. Students don’t automatically know that they need to be quiet, to not disturb plants and animals unnecessarily, or that horseplay is not acceptable. Most of the time when we allow students to be in the out of the classroom is for unstructured play. It takes some training to get the message across that outdoors doesn’t always mean recess.

Group size is another important factor in the success of field work. Small groups function much better than large groups. Have a job for everyone. Having tasks that keep the students focused brings the potential for misbehavior down. If you are the only leader, use a “hub” approach. Have a central location from which you disperse and gather your student work groups. It is also important to realize that not all students need to do everything. Often it is better to have students become the “experts” at a certain job or subject area and to share their findings and knowledge with the others.

Minimize Your Impact/Earth Ethics and Etiquette

One of your most important roles in the program is as a role model for student behavior. Your actions speak much louder than your words and children will treat the environment much the same way that you do. This can be an enormous opportunity to teach outdoor ethics without ever saying a word. Your decisions about collecting, the way you treat plants and animals in the environment, and what your expectations are for your student’s interaction with the site are all powerful messages about how to treat the planet. Children should be engaged in decisions about when, why and how to collect samples. Is it appropriate? Is it necessary? What valuable thing will we learn from the experience? Examine ways in which your visits impact the natural world. Are there ways that we can reduce those impacts and still learn the things we want to? How long lasting are our disturbances? Bringing these kinds of questions into the consciousness of your students will help them to form and examine their own beliefs on these issues.


Change will only come to our systems through the efforts of individuals. Though change is difficult and frightening, it is also empowering and growth producing. It is up to you to try things out, to experiment with ideas and to not be afraid of failure or of success. BE ALERT! This approach to student/citizen involvement can become a self-perpetuating system…a machine that may be difficult to stop once engaged!! Don’t be surprised when you become the center of excited interest emanating from your students, their parents, your colleagues and administrators! We owe it to our students and community to try!

Pat Willis is a distinguished environmental educator currently with Oregon State University Extension 4-H. 

Susan Cross is a former EEAO member and Oregonian now living in Arizona.