Gardens Grow Minds: The School as Green Educator

Gardens Grow Minds: The School as Green Educator


First graders at St. John the Baptist School observe the beautiful flowers that have developed from the seedlings they planted a year ago

Gardens Grow Minds: The School as Green Educator

by Mary Quattlebaum

“We have a garden! With flowers and butterflies!” The third graders beam as they describe their wildlife garden during my author visit to St. John the Baptist (SJB) School in Maryland.

I thought about their enthusiasm and the dedicated teachers and parent volunteer, Mary Phillips, I met that day as I researched and wrote Jo MacDonald Had a Garden. How best to convey a child’s joy in digging and planting while offering teachers and parents helpful information on starting and/or teaching with a school or backyard garden?

MACG_COVERThese days, schools, such as SJB, can be the venues best positioned for nurturing a child’s wonder in the natural world. I grew up with a dad who shared his curiosity about nature with his seven kids and umpteen grandkids and showed us how to garden. (He’s the model for Old MacDonald, Jo’s grandfather, in my book, which is an eco-friendly riff on the popular song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”)

But in today’s fast-paced, busy world and with diminishing green spaces, these “growing experiences” and “life lessons” may be missing from childhood.

Happily, SJB seems to be part of a national trend, with an increasing number of schools adding an “outdoor classroom” to the traditional learning environment. At the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Senior Coordinator Nicole Rousmaniere, who manages school programs, shared recent statistics. More than 4200 schools have started schoolyard habitats that help sustain regional wildlife, she says, with an additional 300 to 400 being added yearly.

Rousmaniere emphasizes that commitment rather than size is the key to an effective “green education” from school gardens. Small can be powerful. Having children plant and care for native plants in containers or in a little patch beside a school can foster lessons in biology and stewardship. Indoor “green” activities pique youngsters’ interest in learning and doing even more. (Dawn has such activities online and in the back of all its children’s books, including Jo MacDonald Had a Garden.)

“Kids love a garden, but you’ve got to start them young,” says William Moss, a master gardener and horticultural educator. Advocating for school and small-space gardening, Moss writes the popular “Moss in the City” blog for the National Gardening Association, hosts HGTV’s “Dig In” and is a greening contributor to “The Early Show” on CBS.

Just about any subject can be taught through a garden, says Moss, including science, math, natural history, geography, nutrition, reading and writing.

A garden offers hands-on and experiential learning, says Phillips, the parent volunteer who helped SJB’s science teacher to create the school garden three years ago. Phillips has seen teachers use the garden to teach units on pollination, history, the food chain and the ozone. Her blog showcases student art inspired by the garden and by the art teacher’s lessons on Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings. An added bonus, says Phillips, is that the garden, in addition to enriching academic studies and creative expression, also stimulates the brain, enhances sensory awareness and gets kids outdoors for some exercise.

I thought of all these points so beautifully articulated by Moss, Phillips and Rousmaniere as I researched and wrote Jo MacDonald Had a Garden. My hope, along with illustrator Laura Bryant’s, was not only to playfully introduce youngsters to wiggling worms, fluttering birds and growing plants but to make it easy for teachers and parents to build on basic lessons.

School gardens can be the start of a learning experience that grows over a lifetime. As NWF’s Rousmaniere points out, just as schools teach the 3 R’s, so, too, they might provide a setting that connects children with and increases their knowledge about the natural world. One of the most important lessons to learn young is stewardship, says Rousmaniere, the idea that we are all caretakers of the earth and its wild inhabitants.

Resources for Starting and Learning from a School Garden

William Moss, horticultural educator
National Gardening Association
National Wildlife Federation
Mary Phillips, school garden advocate

Mary Quattlebaum is the author of Jo MacDonald Had a Garden and numerous other children’s books. She and her family enjoy watching the birds, bugs and other wild creatures that visit their urban backyard habitat.



A Journey Of Surprises

Rivers reveal their secrets to Idaho students researching water quality through rigorous scientific inquiry

Photos and story by Suzie Boss

Squiggly blue lines cover the map of Idaho, a state with more than 2,000 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers. From the perspective of veteran science teacher Bob Beckwith, all that water means that nearly every Idaho student has easy access to a creek, a stream, or a lake. “Probably 95 percent of the state’s population lives along a watershed,” he estimates. And where there’s water, Beckwith can promise you, there’s a science project worth pursuing.

On an early winter morning, for example, Beckwith and fellow Eagle High School biology teacher Steve DeMers loaded three classes of warmly dressed sophomores and armloads of scientific gear onto a school bus and headed off on an all-day investigation of water quality along the Boise River. By the day’s end, students had made four stops to gather data between the mouth of the river and headwaters in the mountains west of Boise. They waded midstream to collect invertebrates and dipped their hands into icy currents to test ph and oxygen levels. They checked and rechecked their measurements, keeping careful track of resulting numbers for future analysis.

Despite the frosty weather and the high spirits that come with escaping the classroom, students resisted the urge to hurl snowballs. And all day long, there was no whining. Every student participating in the trip was there by choice, doing what Beckwith calls “real science.”

Since he began teaching in 1972, Beckwith has been using projects to introduce his students to the scientific method. There’s no shortage of evidence that it’s an effective strategy. Beckwith himself is a past recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in teaching secondary science. Several of his students have won regional and national honors in elite science competitions, and many have gone on to launch careers in engineering, biology, medicine, and other fields that require a deep understanding of science. Even students who aren’t destined for technical careers, Beckwith points out, gain the benefit of “learning to ask a question and figure out the answer. That’s how I define science literacy.”

On the banks of the Boise River, three girls from Eagle High interrupted their fieldwork to explain the appeal of project-based learning. “We learn so much more this way compared to reading a book,” said one. “You get to experience it yourself, so you really understand what something like turbidity means,” added another. “This applies to me,” explained the third girl. “This is a river where I might want to swim or go fishing. The quality of this water matters. It’s important. And I have the tools right here to find out whether or not it’s clean,” she said, holding up a vial of river water she was evaluating for the presence of nitrates. Although she knew there would be more analysis to be done later, back in the classroom, she had already gained one insight from taking snapshots along different parts of the river: “Upstream, away from the city, the water gets cleaner.”

photo, kids gathering specimens from the river bottom

photo, examining a screen for macro invertebrates

photo, testing water quality

photo, giving the results to the teacher

During a winter day spent collecting data along the Boise River, students in hip waders used a kick screen to gather specimens from the river bottom (at top); examined the screen for macro invertebrates; tested water quality; and, finally, reported their numbers to teacher Bob Beckwith (bottom, right, with clipboard).

Sharing Skills

Through an ambitious effort he launched several years ago, Beckwith also helps other Idaho teachers acquire the skills, equipment, and confidence they need to incorporate project-based learning into their classes. Project SITE—which stands for Students Investigating Today’s Environment—engages students and teachers across the state in projects involving scientific inquiry into water quality, noxious weeds, and other real-world concerns.

Beckwith co-directs SITE with David Redfield, dean of health and science at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. Support for the project has come from a variety of sources, including several Idaho colleges, school-to-work partnerships, the state department of education, Idaho Rangeland Commission, and private funders such as the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.

More than 200 teachers have gone through SITE training, which immerses them in the same kind of project-based learning they will later orchestrate with their own students. The core of training is an intensive, five-day summer workshop that reminds teachers why science is best understood through active learning. Little time is spent listening to lectures or reading texts. Instead, teachers do real fieldwork, rafting the Salmon River to collect data that relate to water quality or surveying plant life to assess the spread of noxious weeds.

“It’s not lecture/read/do a canned experiment,” Beckwith says. “We might talk for short periods about things they don’t understand very well, then provide them with an experience where they can pose questions and do research to figure out the answers. So it’s a steep learning curve. We model how science works. Science is not a textbook—that’s a history book of facts that scientists have already learned by asking questions. Those facts are an important foundation,” he acknowledges, “but real science involves going out and answering new questions.”

Between Monday and Friday of a typical training week, “teachers learn everything they need to be classroom ready,” Beckwith says. Participants also come away with armloads of gear provided by SITE. “We don’t just train them and then expect them to find a way to buy their own equipment,” he says. “We give them all the stuff they need,” he says, such as test kits, digital cameras, and a manual he wrote in accessible language to guide students through nine scientifically valid field tests designed to measure water quality.

In return, teachers agree to take their students out on data-gathering projects at least three times during the school year. They also bring SITE students together to present their projects during an annual Idaho Student Showcase Day in the spring. By fulfilling their end of the bargain, teachers can earn a stipend.

Providing teachers with such extensive support means that the SITE organizers have had to devote considerable energy to writing grants and reaching out to potential funders. The program invests about $1,500 per teacher on training and supplies, Beckwith estimates. But the investment pays off, he says, by “freeing teachers to focus on teaching.” Water quality —which integrates biology, chemistry, and physics—continues to be a prime focus of fieldwork, but funding for research on weeds has led to new SITE projects in the area of life sciences. “As long as we can collect data, work as a team, and ask questions, then it’s a valid project,” Beckwith says.

To be sure, project-based learning puts high demands on the instructor. “This takes energy,” Beckwith admits at the end of a cold day spent outdoors with a busload of teenagers. But for teachers who enjoy being learners themselves, this style of teaching “helps prevent burnout,” he adds. “It lets teachers engage in questions, too. They have to know enough to help students figure out the answers. As a teacher, you have to allow students to go places even if you don’t know the answers.”

Some teachers need a little “nurturing,” Beckwith admits, to gain the confidence to launch students on challenging projects outside the confines of the classroom. “For others, this way of learning fits so well with their teaching style—it’s natural. They pick it right up.” When Beckwith explains SITE methods to teachers who already believe in active learning, “you just have to put the idea on the table and then run to get out of their way!”

photo, girl using water quality equipment

Students use scientific equipment to measure water quality indicators— not once, but three times. Later, back in the classroom, their numbers will be added to a statewide database. Their first field lesson: accuracy counts.

Pleasant Surprises

Shannon Laughlin was in her first year of teaching middle school science when she saw a flyer about Project SITE. She signed up for two weeks of workshops last summer, including a five-day raft trip along the Salmon River.

“You work your tail off,” she recalls, laughing. “You’re on the river nine hours a day, then talk more about science at night. It’s wonderful!” Although Laughlin holds degrees in both plant science and entomology, she had never done fieldwork. “This kind of hands-on training gives you a chance to prepare,” she says, “so you’re ready when it’s time to take your kids out.”

Last fall, Laughlin began introducing her students at Marsing Middle School to project-based learning. For students and teacher alike, Project SITE has been a journey of surprises. “My kids started by asking me, ‘What are we going to find out?'” Laughlin would tell them: “I don’t know. You’re the scientists.” Project SITE is worlds removed from what Laughlin calls “canned labs, where you can guess what the results should be. What’s neat about this is, you don’t know ahead of time what you’re going to learn. I like to do things where I don’t know the answers in advance.”

Laughlin’s students have been using SITE protocols to test water quality along the Snake River, which runs right through their community and is only a five-minute bus ride from the school. “They fish in this river and swim in it. The river is a part of their life. So they have a personal stake in asking: Is it clean?” That question has led them to others, such as: What affects water quality—agriculture? pollutants? animals?

Although Laughlin says SITE has opened the door to powerful learning opportunities that build science literacy, that’s not the only benefit she’s witnessed. Using field-tested SITE methods, she asked her students to break into teams and choose their own captains. “The ones they chose as captains are not necessarily the usual leaders. But these kids blew me out of the water,” Laughlin admits. “Natural leadership does not always show up in the classroom. These kids did a great job, and it gave them a chance they might not have had otherwise to demonstrate their leadership, their competence.” She enjoyed sharing that observation with her principal, who came along on the first field trip and has become an enthusiastic supporter of the project.

Power Of Teamwork

Beckwith knows from experience that teamwork is a valuable component of SITE projects. “The tasks are such that one person can’t do it alone,” he explains. “Students have to work in teams, and team members have to depend on each other.” Back in the classroom, teams share test results as part of their quality assurance. “If the teams get similar results,” he explains, “they know they’re on target.” Because data are entered into a SITE database that students all over the state can access for research, accuracy is critical.

What’s more, the team approach to research allows all learners to contribute, no matter how diverse their skill levels or how different their learning styles. “Out in the field, they all can be active participants,” Beckwith says. “Nobody’s sitting on the bench. When they come back into the classroom, they can share their data. Every number offers some valuable information.

David Redfield, a professor of chemistry at Northwest Nazarene University in addition to being co-director of SITE, is convinced that such projects “are not just for the elite students. It’s amazing to see kids who are not particularly strong in traditional classroom settings step up and take on a leadership role on a team. They all can use their strengths.

At the university, teamwork skills are valued, Redfield notes. The depth of science literacy that SITE fosters should help prepare students for the rigor of college-level work. “By the time they reach the university, we should be seeing students who are further along as scientists,” he predicts.

SITE not only introduces students to the process of scientific inquiry, Redfield says, but also gives them enough practice in fieldwork so they can start to become confident researchers. “It’s important for them to go out at least three times during the school year to gather data,” he explains. “The first time they do the tests, it feels like a lab exercise. They’re just learning how to use the equipment, take the measurements. But by going into the real world to gather data, then returning to the classroom to analyze results, they can start to look for patterns. They ask questions to figure out why they got the results they did. It becomes a real experience—the numbers have relevance.”

As students repeat the data-gathering process, “the repetition builds their skills,” Redfield says. “If the data seem off, they can take a close look at how they’re collecting samples. That’s a problem-solving exercise right there—to figure out how to correct their methods in the field. They start to know enough to question results if the numbers seem flawed or wrong. That takes confidence.” As students repeat the cycle of posing a hypothesis, gathering data, and analyzing results, “it takes them deeper and deeper into understanding what’s happening, and why,” Redfield says. “When they’re confident about their numbers, then they can move on to ask: What are these numbers telling us? Why did the oxygen go down? What else changed? Is there a relationship, a pattern?”

Beckwith also takes a long-term view of where Project SITE might lead. “Once they learn to use this model, students should be able to apply scientific inquiry to questions of their own. There should be some students in every class who get really excited, really curious. They can take off on their own investigations,” he says.

He’s seen it happen. One of his former students became curious about Mars, and went on to design an experiment that won a national competition sponsored by NASA. Another girl had to miss some class time because her family was traveling to India. She packed along a water quality kit and tested samples of the Ganges and other rivers, which she compared to the water quality of Idaho rivers.

Recently, Beckwith received an e-mail from a student, now a junior in college, asking for a letter of reference for graduate school applications. It was in his biology class, doing Project SITE, that she did her first fieldwork and became inspired to become a scientist. Beckwith will know when project-based learning really takes off in Idaho and transforms the culture of the classroom, “because we’ll be flooded with letters like that one. It’s far better than any test score,” he says, “for measuring success.”

What’s in SITE?

Teachers currently involved in Project SITE recently came together for an all-day workshop to share information about their classroom activities. Their experiences show that project-based teaching methods can work in a variety of settings and appeal to a wide range of learners. Among the examples:

At Kuna High School, students can start participating in SITE activities as freshmen, in Ken Lewis‘s ninth-grade biology class. “We focus on ecology, and use SITE to explore biotic indicators like macro invertebrates. Working in groups, they come up with some great hypotheses,” he says. Later, when students take chemistry and physics, they use SITE inquiry methods again. “I see a bump in their understanding,” says teacher Mike Weidenfeld. “They have better techniques, deeper understanding.” In chemistry, for example, he uses SITE “as a springboard.” Collecting water samples “gets kids to ask questions like, Why is ph important?”

Roy Gasparotti teaches a yearlong projects class for seventh-graders at New Plymouth Middle School and says SITE “fits right in. Interdisciplinary projects are part of our curriculum.” He asks students to assess whether water samples “are good or bad. Then they develop PowerPoint presentations with their data. It’s more fun for kids to work with their own numbers, to graph data they have collected. It’s more meaningful to them.” Fellow teacher Craig Mefford works with the same students on writing their hypotheses and making carefully worded observations.

Will Zollman, who teaches agricultural science at Midvale Junior-Senior High, took a SITE training session on weeds last summer, along with his superintendent and a school board member. So district support for project-based learning is a given. “This has added to my teaching,” he says. “It’s made me look at weeds in a different way—how do they affect rangeland? What can we do about them?” Those are questions he hopes to have his students exploring through fieldwork this spring.

Steve DeMers, who teaches at Eagle High School, has been involved with SITE for three years. “I want to take it a step further,” he says, to get students to consider deeper questions after they have gathered data. He has students use their test results to create graphs with Excel software. “Then I ask them to look for trends. What should a graph look like? Can they explain what’s happening, and why? I’m trying to get them to recognize patterns.”

John Pedersen, a middle school teacher in Nampa, took a SITE workshop early in his teaching career and has been using project-based methods ever since. This year, students are doing water and weather studies. “One student trains the next to enter data,” he explains.

Chad Anzen at Fruitland High School is starting to see students who have had the benefit of project-based learning as early as middle school. “We have a middle school teacher who does SITE, and I’m getting those kids now in high school. They take off so much faster. They act like teachers themselves,” he says, “helping their classmates understand how to do field tests.” By the time the same students take advanced biology, he adds, “they’re ready to go to the step of analyzing. It’s exciting.”

Chris Gertschen talks with conservationists

Chris Gertschen talks with conservationists

Gertschenpicby Chris Gertschen

For the past three decades, I have been an activist, a volunteer, a student and a teacher of conservation.  My activist years gave me an advocacy perspective but I quickly saw a great need to expand my own natural science education – to give some foundation and balance to my life and love of the earth.  My studies of biology as an undergrad were focused singularly on human biology and physiology.  The word “ecology” was not then part of the curriculum.  As a graduate student, I was introduced to a whole new world.  In the natural history interdisciplinary program that I designed for myself at Boise State University, I studied geology, zoology, ecology and public affairs.  And, I began to learn about conservation biology. (more…)

Citizen scientists tackle ocean “dead zones along Oregon coast

Citizen scientists tackle ocean “dead zones along Oregon coast

ediblePortlandmagazineEdible Portland has an article this month about how local fishermen and crabbers off the Oregon coast are working together with scientists from Oregon State University to monitor areas of hypoxia (low or no oxygen in ocean waters) to learn why it’s happening and how sustainable practices in their industry can help address the problem. Read the article here.

The Forever Forest (Book Review)

The Forever Forest (Book Review)


Kids Save a Tropical Treasure

By Kristin Joy Pratt-Serafini with Rachel Crandell
Published by Dawn Publications

Reviewed by Emily Baker LeRoux

As a home schooling mother of two, I have to admit I like books. I mean REALLY like books.  They seem to multiply in our house and I like to think of it as literary decoration. It works for us though; I find both kids sprawled in various rooms throughout the day with a pile of books next to them.

I first stumbled across The Forever Forest while browsing at the library on the never-ending search for books for my six-year-old animal-loving kid. Upon first glance, I thought this was just another book on the animals that live in the rainforest but I knew he’d love it so I checked it out.  It turned out to be so much more. (more…)

Community-Based Education

Community-Based Education

The Colquitz Watershed Stewardship Education Project

By Pam Murray


A school class at Colquitz River Park in Victoria, BC

Along the Cowichan River, surrounded by the smell of cottonwood resin, an elementary school student discovers that dragonfly larvae look like aliens. In a quiet wetland, a middle school teacher marvels as a guest expert shows his class how to fold cat-tails into duck shaped toys and send them downstream with wishes. In a municipal office, a bureaucrat considers a community proposal, initiated by an elementary school class, to create a new park.

Since 1994, the Colquitz Watershed Stewardship Education Project (CWSEP) has been bringing students, teachers, and the community together to experience educational turning points like those above. Headed by teacher Lenny Ross, the award winning project has successfully instilled an environmental ethic in students of all ages and their teachers by connecting them to the watersheds in which they live.

Flowing through two school districts near Victoria, B.C., Colquitz Creek is an urban salmon-bearing stream affected by development, runoff, encroachment and other negative impacts from the increasing population density within its watershed. The care of watersheds like the Colquitz is often championed by local naturalists and activists who feel a sense of stewardship towards their local environment and community. Creeks are much longer lived than people, and so it is crucial to pass on this ethic to young people who can continue to act as stewards of natural places in the future. Fostering this ethic, however, is difficult through textbook-based classroom learning. Depressing environmental stories of polluted rivers and decreasing salmon returns may actually turn students off of learning about their environment (Sobel, 1996). How then, did this project manage to instill a strong environmental ethic and sense of stewardship in the students and teachers who participated in it?

Inspired by a growing number of environmental education programs, including the Streamkeepers program and Project Wild, which were becoming available in British Columbia during the early 1990’s, Lenny Ross developed the CWSEP during a summer at the Wetlands Institute in the U.S. Over the years, the program has branched out and changed course, but throughout all of these changes, the essential goal has remained the same. “Students learn”, according to Ross, “to appreciate their environment, understand scientific concepts of watershed ecology and take action to help the watershed, and thus become responsible citizens of their community.”

A watershed, as defined by ecologists, is an area which drains into a common body of water, such as a river or stream. As well, the term can be used to describe a turning point in a process. The point at which a course of events is irrevocably altered may be described as a ‘watershed moment’. The CWSEP began with such an event, in which political and school district boundaries were set aside in favor of a new method of defining borders – the watershed of Colquitz Creek. Ten schools were identified within those boundaries, and at each school an environmentally minded teacher agreed to participate. Grant proposals were prepared and submitted with successful results due to the clear focus, goals, and objectives of the program. The project was on its way with a budget to work with.


Students take time to reflect along Colquitz Creek.

Over the years, a variety of methods have been utilized to engage students in learning about their watershed. As well, changing focus slightly each year has kept the CWSEP fresh for the growing number of teachers who implement the program in their classroom year after year. In the 1999 – 2000 school year, classes went on watershed tours of Colquitz Creek while teachers used curriculum materials developed around music and literature. The following year, teachers received a curriculum package focusing on fish biology and their classes traveled to the watershed of the Cowichan River to compare it to the Colquitz. Other years have tied into community events such as Rivers Day or Science and Technology Week. This flexible focus has also helped the project make use of available funding which may require that specific themes are addressed. The essential components of the program, however, have remained the same each year and are as follows:
•    Development of curriculum resources and provision of in-service training for participating teachers
•    Implementation of curriculum materials and resources in the classrooms of participating teachers
•    Field trips, during which classes participate in field studies and environmental assessments, often assisted by high school students who have received special training.
•    Students then work on class projects and stewardship activities such as planting native plants or cleaning up streams
•    All participants are involved in a community celebration during which they help educate members of the public and are recognized for their accomplishments.

Together, these components make up a project that has catalyzed ‘watershed moments’ for students and teachers alike.


Teachers try out an activity during the “Project Wet” workshop.

Teachers as Students
An integral part of the CWSEP’s success has been providing curriculum resources, in-service workshops, and the knowledge of local ‘experts’ to teachers involved in the program. Many of the teachers who have taken part in the CWSEP do not have science backgrounds. Lenny Ross’ own professional background was originally in special education. The opportunity for professional development motivates teachers by giving them the resources they need to tackle topics like stream ecology and bird identification. Through the years, these resources have variously included lessons in fish biology, contributions from local government agencies such as park departments and water districts, guest speakers from the local natural history society, a partnership with musician Holly Arntzen to create classroom activities which use songs celebrating watersheds, and a guide using a literature-based approach to investigating freshwater ecosystems.


Teachers received Stream Team vests after completing training.

According to Lenny Ross, teachers are also attracted to the program because “As research out of the U.S. shows, if you integrate education around an environmental theme,
children’s test scores across all aspects of the curriculum go up because the learning is relevant and meaningful to their world. Such socially responsible education affects more than just grades. Student behaviour improves as children see that their work is valued in the community, and teacher enthusiasm goes up because they know this type of education is effective and it feels worthwhile when they see they are having a positive effect on the community as well.(Lieberman & Hoody, 2000) As one teacher said, “It makes for a really strong personal connect and that’s how you make a change.”

The program also benefits from the sense of community which develops between the teachers as they take on new challenges at workshops or eat meals together while planning the year’s activities. In 2001, the project partnered with the Freshwater Eco-Centre and Vancouver Island Trout Hatchery in Duncan, B.C. to assist in adapting activities for a “Fish Ways” manual, which provided teachers with activities for exploring the biology and ecology of fish with their classes. At the in-service in Lenny Ross’ school, teachers sat in groups for a hands-on lesson in fish anatomy and ecology facilitated by a naturalist from the Freshwater Eco-Centre. This included watching a fish dissection, counting rings on fish scales, and discovering that they could tell, even with paper bags on their heads, that the skin of a flounder, embedded with star-shaped scales, feels like sandpaper.


A Stream Team student shows a turbidity wedge to younger students.

Students as Teachers
The Colquitz Watershed Stewardship Education Project has involved teachers and students from Grade 1 to Grade 12. In general, any class that has expressed interest in the program has been allowed to participate. As a result, it has been necessary to develop relevant and challenging components of the program to suit students of various ages. When high-school students became involved, the project partnered with Streamkeepers, a college-level course provided through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, to train them in the skills needed to assess stream quality. Students were provided with sophisticated equipment which enabled them to determine the pH, oxygen content, and temperature of streams, as well as with training in many aspects of stream stewardship. This group of students, through the vision of middle school teacher Angus Stewart, evolved into the “Stream Team” and began helping with field trips for younger students.

colquitz7In the 1999/2000 school year, participating classes spent a day touring the entire watershed of Colquitz Creek, from its headwaters at Beaver Lake, through their community, to where the creek meets the ocean. By visiting three different stations along the creek and taking short hikes, the classes experienced the watershed first hand and began to see how it conncts their community. Students examined water quality, sampled and identified stream invertebrates, and completed reflective activities to record their impressions of the experience.

Throughout the tour, high school Stream Team students acted as teachers. Set up at stations along the route, the Stream Team students helped with activities for three or four classes a day, each day throughout the week. Given the opportunity to teach the younger students, on an ongoing and repetitive basis, the Stream Team participants quickly became adept at sharing their knowledge and acted as role models for the younger participants.


Students student stream invertebrates in a “mini pond.”

Students as Scientists
As much as the CWSEP has positively affected the teachers and students involved, it has also had tangible successes in improving the quality of the Colquitz watershed. Early in the program’s history a group of high school students from Spectrum Community School became involved with the project. Using their Streamkeepers equipment provided by the CSWEP, they recorded water quality data from the creek and used this data to plot graphs.

By doing so, they discovered that an area known as Quick’s Bottom, just downstream from the headwaters at Beaver Lake, had an elevated water temperature and low oxygen levels which would be deadly for salmonids. As it happened, many schools in the area were also involved in a “Salmonids in the Classroom” program where they were provided with equipment to rear salmon fry in their classes. These fry were then released into appropriate streams, including Colquitz Creek. The favored location for salmon releases in the Colquitz Watershed was just upstream of the warm, low oxygen area discovered by the students – an area that they renamed “Quick Death Bottom”.

After this discovery, it was decided that a new location for salmon releases should be found. A nearby park was located, safely downstream from the “Quick Death” area, where earlier habitat enhancement projects had already created excellent conditions for salmon fry. Classroom-reared salmon fry began to be released into this new location, greatly improving their chances of survival.

Students in the Community
After field trips are completed each year, students participate in class projects which apply their knowledge of environmental stewardship. Stream cleanups, plantings, and recycling projects have all taken place. Salmon have been raised in classrooms, invasive plants have been removed, and storm drains have been marked. Classes have done research projects to create posters and help educate their community about their shared watershed.

At Strawberry Vale School, where Lenny Ross teaches, mapping activities took place. In becoming more aware of their watershed, students and teachers noticed an open natural area near their school, owned by the Municipality of Saanich. Students helped work on a community proposal that resulted in this land being designated as a park, which the students named “Strawberry Knoll.”


Holly Arntzen leads students in a song and dance during an end of year festival.

As well, the program has involved community festivals. Displays have been erected in a local mall to highlight student’s work, and celebration concerts featuring local musician Holly Arntzen – who has also contributed to curriculum resources – have brought together participants to finish the year. In 2001, students came together from four school districts to Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site near Victoria to highlight what they had learned in an ecology fair called the Salish Sea Festival.

Watershed Moments for Schools
The CWSEP has had lasting effects not only on students, teachers, parents, and community members, but on entire schools. In the case of Strawberry Vale School, the elementary school where Lenny Ross teaches, the project has been partly responsible for inspiring a new school design.

Located in a semi-rural area within the Colquitz Watershed, Strawberry Vale was intimately involved with the CWSEP from its very beginning. Not only Lenny Ross, but almost every teacher in the school, was involved with the project each year. When, during the project, the opportunity to build a new school arose, the teachers’ interest in environmental education helped to shape the new school. Landscape architect Moura Quayle interviewed the teachers to determine what kind of school they wanted, and discovered that Strawberry Vale was the perfect school to pilot projects with an environmental focus, reflecting the natural features of the semi-rural area in which it was located.

The new school and its grounds incorporated many features to allow children to learn, play, and interact with the natural world. The school is designed without eaves troughs. Instead, water pours off the roof in a waterfall-like fashion, past windows where students can observe the water cycle in action. The water then goes into a ground drainage system and eventually runs into a swale which empties into a newly created seasonal pond on the school’s property. Drains in the parking lot also lead into the pond, and have been painted with yellow storm drain marking fish to indicate that they lead to fish habitat. Between the school and the pond is a native plant garden approximately 100m long by 20m wide. This garden was created over many years with the participation of students who helped fundraise and create interpretive signage, as well as teachers, the parent association, district grounds and facilities staff, and other school staff. Ongoing planting and mulching days that take place at the school engage everyone, including the school custodian who has come to accept mud and leaves being tracked through the halls as a minor inconvenience when compared to the exciting and important learning that is taking place.

Students at the school who have been involved in the creation of their garden and ponds have developed a stewardship ethic that they readily apply to the greater community. When they discovered that a neighboring grove of Garry Oak trees was suffering from misuse and neglect, the students and staff took action to remove invasive ivy and add leaf mulch to the soil. These wild places near their school also provide opportunities for study. The pond and garden are regularly used for lessons about habitat requirements, aboriginal uses of plants, and more. Local experts have come to the garden to teach the students about traditional uses of plants and to make wild teas. Heavy snows this past year revealed dozens of birds searching for seeds and shelter amongst the shrubs. Red- winged blackbirds and marsh wrens have nested amongst cattails growing in the pond, and mink and great blue herons have been seen on the school grounds as well. Over the years, students have been able to learn about pond succession as the pond gradually filled in, and recently they raised funds to dig the pond out and start over so that future classes can continue to enjoy and learn from it.

Some years, the students and staff of Strawberry Vale shared their watershed moments with others when the CWSEP end of year festival was hosted in part at their school. Participants from four other schools were able to rotate through various activities in different classrooms including storytelling and watershed models. Class projects were displayed in the hallways, a watershed drawn on the floor flowed towards the gymnasium, and students led tours of their school garden and pond, explaining how their school fits into the watershed of Colquitz Creek.

Aside from opportunities to practice stewardship and to study, the garden, swale, and pond also provide the students at Strawberry Vale the very important opportunity for unstructured play. “You can walk down the trail at recess”, says Lenny Ross, “and think there’s nobody in the garden, but as soon as the bell goes, kids pop out everywhere. They are down at their own level, in the thicket, and if you join them and ask what they are doing they go on forever about the rooms and shelves and castles they have created.” This kind of unstructured play has been shown to contribute to children’s creativity and problem solving abilities, and also to be instrumental in fostering the environmental ethic that the CWSEP strives to create (Louv, 2005).

Because of the longevity of the program, which began in 1994, teachers involved have been able to see students who participated in the program in elementary school grow up. They have observed these students carrying a sense of stewardship and an environmental
ethic with them into university and beyond. The ponds, gardens, and lasting dedication to environmental programs at Strawberry Vale school are one legacy of the project.


Lenny Ross (left) and Nikki Wright of SeaChange Marine Conservation Society celebrate the program’s success.

Through a partnership with the SeaChange Marine Conservation Society, the watershed tours continue as part of the Living Watershed Program. The high- school Stream Teams still work to take care of their local watersheds. Today, a middle-school oriented program called EcoRowing, which also involves yearly themes, extensive networking amongst teachers, and the knowledge of local experts, continues to provide more “hands on, feet wet” learning for teachers and students alike.

So why does this program work? According to Dr. Gloria Snively, University of Victoria environmental and marine education professor:
A major factor is the outstanding leadership of Lenny Ross who is a master environmental education teacher. Lenny is an extremely knowledgeable environmentalist and a visionary elementary school teacher without an ego. By demonstrating a strong environmental ethic and warmly welcoming all teachers and resource persons who want to participate, Lenny himself contributes significantly to the program’s success. (Personal communication, March, 2007).

Aside from this leadership, some identifiable “watershed moments” from the program are likely major factors:

a) The program was created in a focused manner. Having clearly stated goals and objectives made it easy to ‘sell’ the program when applying for grants and other funding, as well as asking for the participation of community partners. By 2001 the program had 29 community partners including parks systems, government agencies, local non-profits, two universities, the local natural history society, artists, and musicians.

b)    Resources and in-service workshops were conducted for participating teachers that provided them with the knowledge, resources, and confidence necessary to prepare units on watershed ecology to teach in their classroom. Many of the resources were not necessarily science based. Musician Holly Arntzen recorded a CD of environmentally themed music and worked with Lenny Ross to create a teacher’s guide to use the CD in their classroom, and materials using a literature- based approach were also used.

c) Students came to field trips prepared. All the classes who took part in watershed tours or other activities had completed a watershed unit in their classroom beforehand, which meant they were primed for the hands-on experiences of closely observing the creek.

d)    Stewardship projects were involved – being able to clean up litter, plant shrubs, or even create a new park gave participants a taste of success and the feeling of truly making a difference in their community.

e) Finally, the students’ efforts were recognized. Community celebrations and eco- fairs that showcased the students work meant students accomplishments could be shared with the larger community, giving them a true sense of contribution.


A student project illustrates a healthy watershed.

Finally, an unspoken strength of this program is perhaps simply the amount of time students are given to have direct contact with nature – a factor that has been shown to directly affect students’ performance (Louv, 2005). The success of this program has garnered it recognition at both the provincial and national level.

Experiencing success with their stewardship projects, feeling a sense of pride as they educate their community, and spending time in nature all help to foster an environmental ethic in the students who participate. Most significantly, however, the students have experienced critical moments that have allowed them to see themselves as an integral part of their watershed. Having made this connection through the CWSEP, they cannot help but care for the environment in which they live.


Lieberman, G. & Hoody, L. (2000). California student assessment project: The effects of environment-based education on student achievement. San Diego, California, State Education and Environment Roundtable.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books.

Snively, G. (2007). (Personal communication, University of Victoria professor, March 28, 2007).

Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond ecophobia, Great Barrington, Maryland: The Orion Society.

About the Author:
030Pam Murray is a writer and park naturalist from Victoria, B.C., who currently lives in the Bowker Creek watershed. In 2001, as a naturalist at the Freshwater Eco-Centre in Duncan, B.C., she participated in the CWSEP by helping to deliver the “Fish Ways” in-service workshop. Over the years, Pam heard many positive comments about the CWSEP, mostly from other naturalists who told her how much fun it was to help out with Lenny’s program. This paper could not have been written without the generosity and patience of Lenny Ross, who also provided all of the photos and illustrations.