Lynch2015-3Environmental Leadership: Making Connections

Two service-learning programs within the Environmental Leadership Program at the University of Oregon aim to deepen students’ knowledge of their bioregion through day-long, hands-on field trips.

By Kathryn A. Lynch, Environmental Leadership Program, University of Oregon

C (Dakota)hildren and young adults are often more tuned into the screens in front of them than the landscape surrounding them; when asked which direction is north their inclination is to check their smartphones. In response, the Environmental Leadership Program at the University of Oregon is developing environmental education projects seeking to reconnect children to nature.

The Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) is an interdisciplinary service-learning program housed in the University of Oregon’s Environmental Studies Program. Our mission is to provide undergraduates with an integrative capstone experience, our graduate students with project management experience, while engaging with the community to address real needs.

Since 2001, ELP has developed and implemented 81 projects addressing a wide array of topics. Currently, our projects fall within four primary tracks: environmental education, conservation science, sustainable practices, and community engagement.

The two main goals of our environmental education teams are to: 1) provide UO students the knowledge, skills and confidence to develop and implement place-based, experiential programs; and 2) develop age-appropriate, engaging curricula for local youth, grades K-8, that promotes the stewardship of our natural world.

During winter and spring of 2015, our two environmental education teams focused on the theme of “connections.” The new Restoring Connections team worked in partnership with Mt. Pisgah Arboretum and Adams Elementary to develop and implement a place-based curriculum which included an interactive classroom lesson and a field trip to Mt. Pisgah. The team provided over 200 K-2 students an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of where they live and the importance of conservation and stewardship. The Canopy Connections team worked in partnership with the HJA Experimental Forest and the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute to develop and facilitate an interactive pre-trip lesson and field trip for over 200 middle-schoolers. Students studied forest succession, learned how to use a compass, wrote poetry in field notebooks, and climbed 90 feet into the canopy.

To prepare for their service projects,the undergraduates first enrolled in Environmental Education in Theory & Practice. In this class, they gained a working knowledge of best practices in EE through readings, guest lectures, field trips, and most importantly, their service-learning project in which they developed educational materials for their community partners. While the specifics of the curricula were left up to the teams to determine, all teams were required to: 1) incorporate an interdisciplinary approach, 2) include multicultural perspectives, 3) use experiential, inquiry-based methods, 4) promote civic engagement, and 5) articulate assessment strategies. Their materials were pilot-tested at the end of winter term, and the teams then worked with their community partners to implement their EE programs throughout spring term. Each UO student completed approximately 120 hours of service, which entailed facilitating classroom visits, field trips, and developing supplemental educational materials (e.g. websites, presentations). What follows are descriptions of these projects, written by the team members themselves.


Lynch2015-2Case Study 1 –

Restoring Connections: Unplugging and Reconnecting

By Ashley Adelman, Roslyn Braun, Lucas Holladay, Kiki Kruse, Kerry Sheehan, Zoie Wesenberg, and Alicia Kristen (Project Manager).

As a group of students made their way into the Douglas-fir forest from the oak savanna, a facilitator hushed the group with a “quiet coyote” hand signal. Immediately, everyone hunkered down, peering through the brush as the group tried to get a glimpse of the discovery. A student squealed in delight. The deer was still, its gaze locked onto ours. Having taught our students about the importance of deer ears for hearing predators, they noticed how the deer kept her ears pricked forward, waiting for our next move. The group slowly moved up the hill trying to get a better view. Experiences like this have the ability to enhance the senses like no video game or television show can. Learning about environmental issues at a young age can be overwhelming, but connecting to local nature, students can become more aware of and in tune with the natural world.

In spring 2015, the Environmental Leadership Program launched the Restoring Connections project at Adams Elementary School. Our team of six undergraduates, with the guidance of our graduate project manager, was responsible for the design, creation and implementation of this environmental education curriculum, focusing on Mt. Pisgah Arboretum’s natural ecosystems.

In this pilot year, we focused on kindergarten, first-, and second-grade students. Our goal was to address what Richard Louv calls ‘nature-deficit disorder’ through the creation and implementation of a place-based and experiential educational program. According to Louv, the cultural shift in which many youth now prefer to stay inside interfacing with screens, rather than going outside to play and explore, has resulted in devastating effects on their personal well-being – physically, mentally, and emotionally – in addition to having disastrous repercussions for the environment. How we set about addressing nature-deficit disorder was informed by Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and David Sobel’s work, which outlines a framework for age-appropriate content. Working from this theoretical foundation, we knew we wanted to allow students to explore nature first-hand to help them develop a connection to where they lived, and nurture empathy for the plants and animals that share our bioregion. In addition, the structure of our program was influenced by the Tbilisi Declaration (1977), which states that environmental education should foster awareness, provide knowledge, develop skills, and shape attitudes in students so they can effectively participate in environmental decision making and stewardship. This idea of restoring children’s connection to nature, while they participated in restoring the land, was a central idea of the program.

The structure of our Restoring Connections program consisted of a 45-minute classroom visit on Tuesday, followed by an all-day field trip on Thursday. The classroom lessons focused on introducing key concepts, preparing the children for a successful field trip, and most importantly, instilling a sense of excitement and awe for the ‘magical forest’ they would be visiting. The field trip focused on awakening their senses, building connections and empathy, and finally, on giving students an opportunity to be involved in restoration activities.

During the field trip the kinders built elf and fairy homes out of natural materials in the wildflower garden, engaged their visual senses by finding a rainbow of colors, and engaged their auditory senses by using their ‘deer ears’ as they journeyed along the riverbank.

First-grade students explored the oak savanna, discovering how pollinators and native plants interact in this habitat. Students examined an Oregon white oak up close and played games that honed their observation and plant identification skills. The restoration work focused on creating habitat for native wildflowers by pulling invasive shining geranium, and planting native plants. Through this restoration work, students learned about native and non-native species and the importance of stewardship.

Second-grade students explored the Douglas-fir forest, studying concepts of camouflage and adaptation through role play and the study of animal behavior. Their restoration work was centered around building “habitat hotels” for decomposers found in the Douglas-fir forest.

The restoration work connects classroom learning to real-life experiences. By learning the differences between native and non-native plants, our first-grade students discovered the need to care for native species in Oregon. Gaining knowledge about the role of decomposers in the Douglas-fir forest allowed the second-grade students to understand ecosystem functions. These activities provided an example of the impact that they can have on the environment.

Throughout our ten weeks of teaching, over 200 students had the opportunity to visit and explore Mt. Pisgah. As part of our professional development, we were asked to evaluate what worked and what needed to be changed after each interaction, and then make those changes for the following week. Jenny Laxton, the education program coordinator at Mt. Pisgah, provided us with invaluable feedback to help us improve our program to best serve the needs of the Arboretum and Adams students and staff.

The opportunity to complete service work allowed the elementary students and our ELP team the opportunity to take the knowledge and skills we have gained in the classroom and use them in community action. We gained problem-solving and team management skills along with greater knowledge of best practices within environmental education. We were also encouraged to engage in critical self-reflection to improve our final outcomes.

The long term vision for this project is that starting next year, the Restoring Connectionsteam will work with a single cohort of children, from kinder through fifth-grade.This cohort of children will visit Mt. Pisgah Arboretum each season (fall, winter, spring) giving them multiple opportunities to visit, connect, and participate in restoration work. Each grade level will focus on exploring a different habitat located within the Arboretum, with activities geared toward hands on learning. By giving children an opportunity to be outside, learning in nature, we hope this project will deepen their sense of appreciation for the beauty of the natural world and reach those who may not thrive in a classroom setting. By returning each year, the children will gain an understanding of local natural history that cannot be gained through a single visit alone. By involving them in restoration efforts over time, the children will be able to witness the difference their actions have made on the landscape. Overall, Restoring Connections seeks to cultivate a lasting connection to the land, one that is based on reciprocity and respect.

To learn more about our project, please visit:



Lynch2015-1Case Study 2 –

Canopy Connections: Nurturing Naturalists

By Samantha Bates, Laura Buckmaster, Nicole Hendrix, Forrest Hirsh, Micaela Hyams, Elie Lewis, Amelia Remington, Nick Sloss, Tim Chen (Project Manager).

Six middle-school students sit silently on a trail in an old-growth forest: one observes a newt run over her feet; another notices how moss and lichen create miniature forests; another writes poetry about the nearby sounds of Lookout Creek. Down the trail, students identify giant Douglas-firs, noting the distinct grooved bark in contrast to the smoother bark of the equally impressive western hemlocks. Using newly-honed plant identification skills, students compare two plots to form hypotheses about what stage of ecological succession they are observing. Further along, students put their compass skills to the test, going on a compass scavenger hunt of sorts, receiving a bearing and seeing if they can find the correct specific tree off the trail. Later, they will sit in a circle surrounded by enormous Douglas-fir, ancient Pacific yew, stringy western redcedar, and drooping western hemlock and draw a map of the forest with the creek as their backdrop. Meanwhile, their friends climb 90 feet into the canopy, finding treasures few ever ascend high enough to discover: dangling Lobaria lichen clinging to branches heavy with the plentiful “roses” of small, papery hemlock cones; licorice ferns growing out of decades-old moss carpets that blanket trees that students now observe from above.


Canopy Connections is in its seventh year. This year our team of eight undergraduates (and one graduate project manager), sought to distinguish ourselves by designing our curriculum around the theme “nurturing naturalists.” Drawing from Gardner’s multiple intelligences, our curriculum caters to multiple ways of knowing and different learning styles. All of our lessons focus on building sensory awareness.

The structure of our Canopy Connections program consisted of a 45-minute classroom pre-field trip visit, followed by an all-day field trip at H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River, Oregon. The classroom lessons focused on introducing key concepts and preparing the middle-schoolers for a successful field trip. For the all-day field trip, each class was divided into four groups and rotated through four different stations.

Station 1: Climbing to the Canopy. At this station, students ascend 90 feet into the canopy of an old-growth Douglas-fir tree. Experienced tree climbers from the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute (PTCI) facilitate this activity. Students support one another in their learning about microclimates as they are connected to the ropes one by one and make their way up. While this activity is challenging for some children, the rush of adrenaline often provides them with a hyper sensitivity to their surroundings they might not have appreciated before. Many students leave this activity with a deeper respect for the sheer magnitude and magnificence of a 400-year old Douglas-fir tree.

Station 2: Nature’s Navigators. On the ground, students learned basic map reading and compass skills. Students worked in pairs, and with the help of facilitators, embarked on a compass expedition. Using their compass and species identification cards, they were tasked with locating and identifying four species of trees found in old-growth forests. They later observed the four tree species up close and collaborated to correctly identify them. Students used their new skills and knowledge to create a map of their immediate surroundings.

Station 3: The Life and Layers. At this station, students explored forest succession and disturbance. We introduced the four characteristics of an old-growth forest using the acronym OWLS–old, woody debris, layers, and snags. They then learned to identify several species seen on the forest floor. To paint a picture of how a forest becomes old-growth, we had students read a passage from Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest to each other and then look for these signs as they hiked. Through descriptions of nurse logs and pathogenic fungi, they gained an appreciation for the intricate relationships of the forest and began to consider the significance of observation for scientists and writers alike.

We encouraged students to touch the plants, compare, and describe them to each other in order to create detailed records in their field notebooks. Splitting into two groups, they examined plots located in stands of different aged forests, with the goal of using their new knowledge, observation, and recording skills to determine whether they were looking at the 40-year stand or an old-growth stand.

Station 4: Stop, Sit, Scribble. At this station, students practiced their writing skills, imitating the work done by the writers of the Long Term Ecological Reflections (LTER) project, which is designed to collect stories, poems, and essays for 200 years from 2003 to 2203. After listening to The Web, a poem written at HJA by Alison Hawthorne Deming, students followed the guiding principles of the LTER project and spread out on the forest floor to begin writing a stanza for a collaborative poem. They focused on incorporating sensory observation skills and using descriptive adjectives as do the writings collected for the LTER project.

Lynch2015-4Although concepts of creative writing and poetry are taught in the lesson, students gain much more than an appreciation for adjectives. They learn collaboration and listening skills, while simultaneously absorbing clues from the natural world: the rush of the river, the smell of coolness in the air, the hundreds of plant species surrounding them. Sensory observation and creative writing connects with the theme of “nurturing naturalists” by bridging the gap between humanities and science.

Throughout Canopy Connection’s eight-week program, over 200 hundred students from four different middle schools participated in field trips. During nine days in the field, we totaled 54 hours of teaching with an 8:1 student-teacher ratio and led nine in-class pre-trip lessons. In addition, we worked in partnership with 23 high-school students from a local AP Environmental Literature class. These students helped us in the field, and we shared insights into going to college as well as being effective environmental stewards. Our team compiled our final curriculum and a final report, and developed a website to display our project. We presented our findings at the Undergraduate Research Symposium, a SMILE workshop at HJA, and an ELP final presentation. Our ultimate mission is positive environmental change stemming from an environmentally-literate younger generation. Many teachers and students have already reached out to express how much our field trip meant to them. To learn more about our project, please visit:



Literature Cited

Deming, Alison Hawthorne. 2007. The Web. Orion Magazine, March/April.

Gardner, Howard. 2011. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Louv, Richard. 2006. Last Child in the Woods. Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Norse, Elliott A. 1990. Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest. The Wilderness Society. Island Press: Washington D.C.

Sobel, David. 1996. Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. Nature Literacy Series. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.

Tbilisi Declaration. 1977. Summary of goals and guiding principles.