Learning in an authentic, meaningful, interdisciplinary environment

Learning in an authentic, meaningful, interdisciplinary environment

A Year in the Watershed

There is no doubt that if you want to get students truly excited about what they are learning, ask them to tackle a real-world question or problem — ask them to solve something that is relevant to their lives.

by Jean M. Wallace

It is no surprise that children learn best by doing. And, when they seamlessly integrate across subjects and spend ample time working to find solutions to real problems that will improve lives, fulfill needs, and make our world a better place, their learning reaches a much deeper level. During my 20 years in a leadership role in experiential education, establishing partnerships and supporting hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in authentic learning, I witnessed this success first hand. There is also no doubt that if you want to get students truly excited about what they are learning, ask them to tackle a real-world question or problem — ask them to solve something that is relevant to their lives. In using this approach, students come to realize that what they are doing in school really does have meaning.

Whether describing this learning process with terminology such as STEM, STEAM, Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, or EIC (Environment as an Integrating Context — the process used by my former team as outlined below), it is the alignment of the content (the “what”) and the process (the “how”) that drives these successful learning models. Integration is critical, as it is the bonding of content and process that strengthens the structure of learning for students. Rather than teach in isolation, teachers and schools should model the 21st century skills we want our students to acquire by collaborating, cooperating, and communicating across disciplines to make learning more meaningful in all subjects. The effectiveness of using the environment as the foundation for interdisciplinary learning is not new to education and is supported by research.

Founded in 1995, the State Environment and Education Roundtable (SEER) worked with 16 state departments of education to develop Environment-Based Education (EBE) as a standards-based instructional strategy to engage students in “real-world” learning experiences. Over 40 schools took part in this national study, which resulted in the 1998 publication of Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning (Lieberman & Hoody, 1998). As was the case with the national EIC research study, our own EIC program was extremely successful and proven to close the achievement gap.

Environment = Authentic Learning

Moving from teaching in isolation to teaching across disciplines can be challenging, but my firm belief was (and still is) that a powerful and deep understanding of content coupled with a meaningful and authentic process of student engagement results in deeper learning for children.

Therefore, when building an curriculum focused on authentic learning, it made perfect sense to use Pennsylvania Environment & Ecology (E&E) Standards as a foundation on which to build an integrated and student-centered curriculum: one that would shape the framework for active, authentic, community-based science teaching and learning. Along with cross-curricular, real-world, rigorous content, an E&E-based program offers students the opportunity to engage in service learning and civic action, creating responsible and caring global citizens. This is evidenced in the introduction to the E&E standards, which reads as follows:

“Environment and Ecology is grounded in the complexity of the world we live in and our impact on its sustainability. The human interactions with the ecosystem and the results of human decisions are the main components of this academic area. Environment and Ecology examines the world with respect to the economic, cultural, political, and social structure as well as natural processes and systems. This integration across systems is what sets this academic area apart from all others.” (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2001)

Starting in Kindergarten, content outlined in the E&E standards also became the foundation for literacy acquisition and was used to generate enthusiasm in our youngest readers. As they were learning how to read, they were connecting what they were reading to the real world around them. The content outlined in these standards formulated a rich vocabulary upon which students could build as they progressed through the curriculum. One example that comes to mind is the topic of Agriculture, which was introduced in Kindergarten and then reinforced in 3rd grade in a multi-disciplinary, multi-week unit of study. Classroom libraries were stocked with vocabulary-rich books, and learning was enriched by field studies to area farms, nature centers, streams, rivers, and museums.

The June 2014 Progress of Education Reform Report issued by the Education Commission of the States, reaffirms the success of applying this early science literacy approach in an authentic learning environment: “Science interactions support vocabulary development by exposing children to new words in meaningful context. Exposure to rich vocabulary words predicts vocabulary development, which predicts reading achievement.” The importance of early science literacy acquisition is summed up nicely in this same publication: “Education leaders should turn a critical eye on the science teaching and learning expected for early education in their school, district or state, then determine whether there is any evidence that children and their teachers are receiving the instructional opportunities they need and deserve.”

Creating the EIC Curriculum

But how and where do you begin when creating an integrated curriculum? For our team, utilizing the E&E standards for content; the interdisciplinary, student-centered process of the EIC Model; a strong emphasis on 21st century skills; and backwards mapping became the perfect collective starting point. Our guide was Dr. Patricia Vathis of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, who is an expert in standards, interdisciplinary learning, and Understanding by Design. As a K–8 team, we began the curriculum-building process by going through each E&E standard statement and unpacking and understanding its content. After completing this, we moved on to Science and Technology, and then to Social Studies, which included History, Geography, and Civics and Government. We identified the content that “anchored” each standard statement and how each grade would be responsible for either introducing that content (I), reinforcing it (R), or bringing the content to proficiency (P).

As we were completing each matrix and assigning a color code to each grade, we were also looking for opportunities to connect content across disciplines to create big ideas for comprehensive, interdisciplinary units of study. Once our team completed a matrix for each of the content area standards, time was allocated for teachers to meet and plan with their grade level partners and teachers from different grade levels and disciplines. Everyone worked from the matrices they, themselves, created. Schedules were designed so that team-teaching could occur several times each week, allowing teachers to see and hear how each overarching topic was being presented through the lens of another discipline.


EIC in Middle School

In some ways, the 5–8 team had a more difficult challenge than the K–4 team, since our middle school students in 5–8 rotated through different teachers and subjects. The teachers effectively met this challenge by working together to design units of study that spanned several months, with each content area well represented. For example, one unit was titled “Disease and its Impact on Philadelphia,” and was taught over a three-month period. In Science class, students investigated how vector species transmit diseases, while in Language Arts the students were reading the book Fever by Laurie Halse Anderson (2000), a historical fiction novel documenting the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that plagued Philadelphia. In Social Studies, the students were mapping out historic Philadelphia and reading and writing about a time in local history when this epidemic took many lives. In Technology, students created their own newspaper and documented the impact of the disease outbreak by writing obituaries and providing information to their imaginary community. Finally, in Art, students designed a 2-D protist from which they created a 3-D model. As students were learning across disciplines, teachers were actively teaching across disciplines. Amazing!

EIC in Elementary School

Just one example of authentic, interdisciplinary learning that was so successful during my years in school leadership was “A Watershed Year,” when each year our 4th grade students were immersed in a year-long, interdisciplinary study of the Delaware River Watershed. Students were challenged to answer the overarching question: Where does your drinking water come from and where does your wastewater go? They began by investigating the history, geography, geology, science, chemistry, and ecology of our local freshwater streams and the surrounding watershed. During their downstream journey, students interacted with experts in local history, drafted a “Water Bill of Rights,” debated ecology versus economy, conducted field studies with the Philadelphia Water Department, mapped out their local watershed, and learned from the Army Corp of Engineers how to effectively engineer a dam.

Students also documented their journey and presented their findings to various audiences. Utilizing digital technology, they even created an interactive, informational walking tour for visitors along the trails at the local historical society. The students’ Watershed Year ended with an exploration of the Delaware Estuary and Atlantic Ocean ecosystems where they discovered the ecological diversity of aquatic life in these brackish and saltwater environments. Their final real-life adventure in learning was a three-hour voyage aboard a trawling vessel out of Cape May, New Jersey where they cast nets into the ocean and hauled in their catch, while working side-by-side with a team of marine ecologists.

Ongoing Improvements and Growth

Professional development for teachers was meaningful, focused, and ongoing. In-service days during the school year were dedicated to curriculum development, and each summer our teachers would attend the Pennsylvania Governor’s Institute for Environment and Ecology. This Institute offered a week-long, residential learning experience that took place both indoors and outdoors. Enhancing the knowledge and skills of teachers through deep-rooted learning experiences inspired our teachers to become even better at creating and implementing authentic learning experiences for their students.

While standards dictated “what” would be taught, the process of learning was designed and reinforced by our teachers. They used content — E&E standards-based content — and the EIC practices to drive instruction. These experiences not only resulted in strong academic achievement, but they ensured outcomes of global citizenship through student empowerment and environmental civic action. Our K–8 EIC framework became the solid academic foundation on which we grew our program from 150 students to over 700 allowing us the financial and community support to build a 20 million dollar school and campus designed for outdoor learning. An amazing accomplishment that many said could never be done!

Positive Impacts

In the end, our state standardized test scores reflected the success of our EIC Model and its interdisciplinary framework. More importantly, these scores represented how immersing students in deep-dive, long-term, interdisciplinary research projects can be a successful approach for all students. As just one example, 90%–96% of our 4th Grade students achieved, on average, the highest level in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Science test. Our special education students and historically underperforming students thrived in this atmosphere of real-world, interdisciplinary learning. Our school was rated as a top performing school locally and state-wide, and ranked internationally with schools in Finland.

Throughout my years working with an incredible team, our EIC curriculum continued to evolve and was revised by our teachers. Success was contagious! Teachers were motivated and students were energized as we immersed ourselves in the study of the environment. We came to realize that doing meaningful work in an authentic environment to conserve our basic needs — the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat — was a bond that we shared and something that is relevant to us all.


Jean Wallace was the CEO of the award-winning Green Woods Charter School, a K–8 public charter school in Philadelphia, PA. During her tenure as CEO, Green Woods was recognized locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally for its innovative approach to learning as well as its academic achievement. She is now consulting for schools and organizations who want to take learning outside.

Prior to her work at Green Woods, Jean served as the regional Director of Education for Earth Force, Inc. (www.earthforce.org). As the Director of Education for Earth Force, Jean supported hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in service learning and civic action projects focusing on local and regional environmental issues. 

Education is a second career for Jean. As a parent, Jean was an active volunteer in her daughter’s private school setting and came to recognize the vast differences between some public and private school learning environments. She sought out a second career in education to offer public school students authentic, real-world learning opportunities similar to those her own daughter experienced.

This article is dedicated with gratitude to Dr. Patricia Vathis, retired Environment and Ecology Coordinator for the PA Department of Education, and the incredible teachers and staff who made the impossible, possible.


 Anderson, Laurie Halse. (2000). Fever, 1793. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Education Commission of the States (June, 2014). Progress Report for Education 18 (2). Denver, CO: ECS.

Lieberman, G., & Hoody, L. (1998). Closing the achievement gap. State Education and Environment Roundtable Report. Poway, CA: Science Wizards.

Pennsylvania Department of Education (2001). Introduction to the Pennsylvania academic Standards for environment and ecology. Retrieval from URL www.education.pa.gov

Outdoor Learning

Outdoor Learning

NatureBridge Takes the Classroom Outdoors: Inspires Teachers and Students Through Discovery

by Karen West
for NatureBridge


“The future will belong to the nature smart… the more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
– Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder’’


Jeff Glaser stood at the base of Madison Creek Falls in Olympic National Park, taking in the beauty of the water cascading 76 feet. As he hiked back toward the Elwha River, he recalled his nature-filled childhood, packed with camping, hiking and fishing trips throughout the Pacific Northwest.

He couldn’t help comparing the wilderness adventures of his youth to experiences of today’s generation, many of whom are growing up in an over-scheduled, technology bubble. “I love getting my students off their devices and into the natural environment where they can breathe, stretch and grow,’’ says Glaser, who teaches sixth grade math, science and religion at St. Louise School in Bellevue, Wa.

Glaser was one of more than a dozen teachers participating in a four-day professional  development summer workshop at NatureBridge, an environmental education nonprofit with a campus in Olympic National Park on the shores of Lake Crescent. With environmental science at its core, the workshop was an example of how NatureBridge provides educators with training, resources and curriculum to help prepare their students to be the next-generation of environmental stewards.

The teachers from Washington, Oregon, California and New Jersey spent the week exploring marine and lowland forest ecosystems in Olympic National Park including the lower Elwha River watershed. NatureBridge educators, Olympic National Park assistant superintendent and rangers, and data driven scientists provided insight into how science, technology, engineering, and math skills inform decision making and management of this one million acre park.

In final projects, teachers in the workshop collaborated with their grade-level peers to submit classroom content for publication on the National Park Service’s K – 12 education site. Inspired by his visit to Rialto Beach, Glaser created a lesson plan focused on marine plastics – Where does the debris come from? What happens to it? And how much is generated?

“Many kids today don’t have these experiences – some don’t know their trees or their national parks,’’ says Glaser, whose parents integrated nature into his life-long learning. “It’s not just kids who are missing out on nature experiences. As teachers, we need to step it up and show our students these things.’’

The educational workshop is just one way NatureBridge collaborates with the national park to inspire teachers and students through critical-thinking skills, hands-on scientific research and inquiry-based learning.


Letting Kids Get Their Hands Dirty

Founded in 1971 as Yosemite Institute, NatureBridge serves over 30,000 young people from more than 700 schools each year at its six national park campuses: the valleys of Yosemite, the watersheds of Washington’s Olympic National Park, the peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains, the marine sanctuary of the Channel Islands, the coastal hills of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the piedmont forest of Washington, D.C.’s Prince William Forest.

No matter what grade level or type of school, many of the teachers who go through a NatureBridge program all leave with the same discovery: Kids get excited about environmental science when they are immersed in a living, outdoor laboratory where they can become scientists in the field – and not worry about making mistakes.

“It’s all about discovery,’’ says NatureBridge educator Josh McLean, during a recent Elwha Exploration Day event. He says it’s more important for kids to think about and create questions than answering them correctly, adding that the most rewarding experiences often come when students are feeling out of their comfort zone.

“The struggles build our ability to persevere and find new knowledge,’’ McLean says, throwing in his favorite quote from poet William Blake who once said, “it’s the crooked paths that are the paths of genius.’’

NatureBridge offers three- to five-day residential programs primarily targeting students in grades 4–12. Olympic National Park is a place where kids and adults aren’t afraid to step in the mud. Students get to hold slimy salamanders, hike in an old growth forest or even touch snow for the first time. They walk across the bottom of what used to be a 60-foot deep lake conducting experiments like real-world scientists, touch springboard notches on tree stumps that were cut down 100 years ago and stand on a 210-foot slab of concrete that once was a dam.

“I can’t think of a better way to teach kids about nature,’’ says Stephen Streufert, vice president of education and Pacific Northwest director at NatureBridge. “By letting kids get their hands and feet dirty in outdoor classrooms, students acquire a deeper understanding of their environment and often begin a lifelong interest in science.’’

NatureBridge Changes Lives

Just ask high school senior Marisa Granados, NatureBridge’s 2018 Student of the Year.  Before I had the opportunity to travel to Olympic National Park, I had begun to feel discouraged about the impact I really could make in the world.’’

Inspired by her first school trip to NatureBridge, Granados embarked on a 14-day NatureBridge Summer Backpacking program in 2017 that gave her renewed confidence in her ability to thrive and make a difference: “I was able to gain the confidence to speak up about what I wanted to do with my life. By gaining a stronger relationship with nature and discovering a deeper part of myself, I now see the influence of my actions and the amount of power that I have in creating change.’’

With the support of the U.S. Forest Service, she developed a handbook and curriculum for middle school students to learn and apply environmental stewardship effectively in her home state of New Mexico. She hopes to pursue a career in environmental engineering and outdoor education.

Granados is just one of thousands of students who has worked like a true scientist collecting and analyzing data in the Olympic National Park.

“There’s a mysticism around here that makes everything magical,’’ says Ingraham High School senior Jonathan Mignon on a recent scientific exploration in the Olympic National Park. “This is a place where you get sense of wild, untamed nature that speaks to me. It makes everything more tangible. You’re not only learning it but you’re feeling it.’’

When students hike in the Elwha River watershed, they don’t just hear that obstructions to river passage has changed, they see first-hand that salmon are now able to swim upriver and spawn in cobbled pools miles upriver from where the dams used to be. Students become part of the dam restoration story practicing scientific inquiry and critical thinking to understand complex issues associated with engineered environmental change.

“They think like scientists testing the quality of water, then transform into politicians, activists and concerned citizens engaging in debates about how the river and its salmon are managed,’’ says Streufert.

Students also get first-hand lessons in stewardship. “They learn that, for the Elwha dam removal to be successful, people had to listen, to engage with those they did not always agree with and to ultimately act, with multiple stakeholders and multiple outcomes in mind,’’ says Katie Draude, NatureBridge summer backpacking manager.

Bringing Back the Elwha

The Elwha Valley, where two dams were removed between 2011 and 2014, is a fertile learning environment for educators and students. The Elwha River Restoration Project – to date the largest dam removal in U.S. history – is one of the key areas of study for students visiting NatureBridge’s Olympic National Park campus. The $325 million National Park Service project entailed tearing down the 108-foot Elwha Dam and the nearby, 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam and restoring the river watershed.

Over the last several years, NatureBridge students have literally watched the river be reborn, recording its long and storied history.

The dams, the first of which was built in 1911, served their purpose of fueling regional growth by supplying much-needed electricity for the local timber and fishing industries. Though state laws required that construction of any kind allow for fish passage, both dams were built without it. But in 1992, after years of protest by many local tribes, lobbying and citizen outcry, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, which authorized dam removals. It took nearly two decades of bureaucratic wrangling before deconstruction began in 2011.

Meanwhile, the damage had already been done. The dams put a 100-year chokehold on migration of salmon just five miles upstream along the 46 mile river, disrupted the flow of sediment and wood downstream, and flooded the historic homelands and cultural sites of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

In its heyday, the Elwha River was home to one of the largest year-round salmon and steelhead runs of any river on the Olympic Peninsula and supported all five species of Pacific salmon. “People who were riding their horses up the trail just upstream from the river couldn’t cross,’’ Pat Crane, a longtime biologist for the Olympic National Park, told the professional development workshop teachers as they sat on what used to be the bottom of Lake Aldwell. “The horses refused to cross the creek because there were so many pink salmon in the creek.’’

That was in the late 1800s and 1900s, before there was electricity in Port Angeles and when steamboats were the region’s primary means of transportation – and before the dams were built. Back then, Crane estimates an average of 120,000 salmon came back to the river every year to spawn. “But by the time we go around to dam removal, we had between 100 and 200.’’

Today, the river, which flows from its headwaters in the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is the largest ecosystem restoration project in the National Park Service history – unleashing more than 70 miles of salmon habitat.

In September 2014, the first reported sighting of Chinook in the Elwha River above where the Glines Canyon Dam came down was confirmed, and they have slowly been returning ever since. In fact, as Crane was talking with the teachers during their workshop, he noticed a small stream near the river where dozens of baby salmon were gathering.  “The fish are gambling they will be safe here,’’ Crane told the group. “They are safe for now but if the water dries up or a heron comes by, they could die.”

To kickstart the river’s recovery and help manage a century of accumulated sediment, Forest Service crews are planting 400,000 native plants and more than 5,000 pounds of native seed in the reservoir basins. But biologists say it could take a generation or more to heal.

What if We Taught Baseball the Way We Teach Science

Research shows that environmental outdoor education sparks student interest, helps improve academic performance and builds confidence. A Stanford University study measuring the impacts of environmental education for K-12 students showed that environmental education helps students enhance critical thinking skills, develop personal growth and increase civic engagement.

An educator in the Stanford study commented: “In my 20 years of teaching before using the environment-based approach, I heard, ‘Why are we learning this?  When are we going to finish?’ And now when we are out in the field and sorting macroinvertebrates, for example, I have to make them stop after four hours for lunch. And then they say, ‘We don’t want to!’”

A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average eight to 18-year-old American now spends more than 53 hours a week using “entertainment media”, up from 44 hours five years ago.

“When you think about the pressures of youth today and the kinds of things they are dealing with their families and teachers, their primary interface is screens,’’ Streufert recently told a group of educators, donors and community leaders.“We know that the average time of kids outside on any given day is about seven minutes – that includes structured play (soccer practice) and unstructured play (playing out in the woods).’’

To illustrate the importance of hands-on learning, NatureBridge educator McLean recalls the writings of UC Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik, who believes “children are designed to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative.” In her book, The Gardner and the Carpenter, Gopnik asks, “imagine if we taught baseball the way we teach science.”

McLean says it would go something like this: “In kindergarten or first grade we might bring a baseball into the classroom. You could look at it but not touch it—it might be dangerous… And if you got to the sixth or seventh grade level, now you can roll the ball across the room or perhaps swing a bat as long as you are well away from everyone else. In high school, with close, coach supervision, maybe you have an interview with a famous baseball player or maybe re-enact a play from some famous game. And it’s not until undergraduate level in college that you play a game of baseball. If we taught baseball that way, we would expect to see the same level of success in Little League that we currently see in our science classrooms – it’s not high.’’

In her book, Gopnik answers her question by saying: “learning to play baseball doesn’t prepare you to be a baseball player—it makes you a baseball player.’’

The same is true in environmental education—if you want kids to learn, to be scientists, to be stewards, you must involve them in the process. Take them into the woods, show them the rivers, let them experience the outdoors. These are the moments that will transform them into scientists. These are the moments that will inspire them to care for the natural world—not one day, but now.

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E2E Grant Project Report – Alaska

E2E Grant Project Report – Alaska

E2E Grant Project Report

Evaluate EE Programs for Systemic Change in Your Community

How to improve the effectiveness of teacher professional development in environmental education


By Cathy Rezabeck, Marilyn Sigman and Beverly Parsons
illingham, Alaska is a rural community in western Alaska with about 2,400 residents, including a substantial population of Yup’ik Eskimos. It has its own school district with an elementary, middle and secondary school. The only way to get there is by plane or boat – there is no road from anywhere! Anchorage is a one-hour jet ride away. You might think it unlikely that you can compare this scenario to your own, but stay tuned. Key to our success in determining the impact of our environmental education project was our use of a Framework for Systems-Oriented Evaluation.

The Alaska Natural Resource and Outdoor Education Association (ANROE) is Alaska’s NAAEE affiliate (www.anroe.net). In 2014 the Environmental Education Office of the EPA awarded a grant “Collective Impact: Advancing Environmental Literacy through Shared Value Creation, Innovation and Collaboration” to four Pacific Northwest states (Alaska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon – EPA’s Region 10). The goal of this Educator to Educator Initiative (E2E) was to develop, disseminate, and evaluate a replicable model for implementing state environmental literacy plans in the Pacific Northwest.

The project team for each state chose a “problem of practice” to focus their grant activities. The Alaska team, with Cathy Rezabeck as ANROE’s Project Coordinator, chose to address how to improve the long-term impact and outcomes of professional development in K-12 environmental education. Our intention was to gain insight into how to improve the effectiveness of professional development in environmental education and the methods by which effectiveness was evaluated. The typical professional development formats consisted of a brief session during a teacher in-service, a two-day, one credit workshop, or a 4-5 day two-credit course. All three were essentially “one shot” learning opportunities for teachers with some limited follow-up requirements to report on how they applied what they had learned in their classroom in a brief reflection on change in practice.

We chose to pilot a new model developed by Alaska Sea Grant (ASG) with the goals of accomplishing and documenting sustained changes in teaching practice schoolwide with emphasis on thematic environmental education instruction focused on local environments and outdoor learning on field trips. Our “problem of practice” was relevant to two goals of the Alaska Natural Resource and Environmental Literacy Plan :  Goal 4: “Enhance professional development for educators, administrators, and community members in natural resource and environmental literacy,” and Goal 5: “Support the development of Alaska school facilities, grounds and local natural areas that provide accessible learning opportunities and serve as community models for healthy living and sustainability.”

ASG wanted to re-invigorate their Sea Week program (re-named as Alaska Seas and Watersheds) in the Dillingham School District and in other Alaska communities where it had been an annual tradition from 1980s into the early 2000s. They developed a new model for professional development designed to increase the use of Alaska Seas and Watersheds (ASW) curriculum materials (alaskaseagrant.org/teachers) and, thus, STEM teaching and environmental literacy about local marine and aquatic environments. The model involved an on-site, professional development workshop provided by Marilyn Sigman, ASG’s Marine Education Specialist, followed by the opportunity for an extended for-credit practicum that could be fulfilled by providing leadership in schoolwide instructional or curriculum change and a field trip program. ASG also provided the Dillingham School District with a $10,000, three-year grant to jump-start their environmental education program.

As part of the grant funds provided by EPA, Marilyn Sigman and Cathy Rezabeck were able to work with Beverly Parsons as an outside evaluator to identify our metrics and methods of evaluating systemic, i.e., sustainable, change.

We identified seven elements which we felt were key to our success, but all were “driven” by the Framework for Systems – Oriented Evaluation developed by Beverly Parsons. ANROE articulated the system of interest and the framework for evaluating change. In our application of the systems framework to our project, we began by identifying the specific levels within the system where change would have significant impacts on the entire system. We selected the following levels which can be viewed on the vertical axis of Figure 1: the individual teacher level (K-8 teachers, specifically, because the ASW curriculum is elementary and middle school-focused), two school administrator levels –the principals of the elementary and middle schools and the District superintendent, and the community level (specifically, local community partners). For each level, we then articulated (on the horizontal axis in Figure 1) the current status of the component of the system we desired to change, the interventions we intended to implement, the tangible or quantifiable “tipping points” we could identify that would indicate significant change, and the desired long-term end-state for the component. We designed and administered pre and post surveys to the teachers involved and used that data to inform this chart. Figure 1 summarizes how this framework was applied to our project and also shows our assessment of whether the intervention (Evaluation column) met the identified tipping points. For a more detailed discussion of the components and results of the evaluation along with our recommendations and conclusions, “Case Study: Increasing Environmental Literacy through Professional Development in Alaska” is available for download here.

The case study demonstrates that using the framework illustrated in Figure 1 can provide the means for professional development providers to evaluate their impacts not only on individual teachers, but also at other levels of the K-12 education system, including school districts, and communities, both of which support the sustained use and benefits of professional development. This systems-based evaluation approach could be used to gauge success in the implementation of effective teaching strategies in environmental education, on the use of specific environmental education resources, and on emphasis placed on environmental education in school and school district curriculum frameworks.

On the statewide level, this approach could provide the means to analyze and evaluate statewide progress on the goals and objectives of the Alaska Natural Resources and Environmental Literacy Plan. In addition, we concluded that providing even relatively modest financial support to schools and instructional resources that were locally relevant removed two important barriers to increasing instructional time spent on environmental education.
We acknowledge that the evaluation process described can be time-intensive and requires considerable professional expertise, but it provides a much more insightful and adaptive approach to professional development and the systemic improvement of environmental literacy instruction than the previous model of stand-alone professional development workshops and courses.

This systems-oriented evaluation approach could also provide the means to evaluate the impacts of other types of environmental education interventions to accomplish systemic change in the K-12 system, an area of environmental education that has not been well developed with evidence-based studies. Finally, because this approach is closely aligned with “logic models” required by a number of federal agencies, it is also useful as an evaluation framework for grant proposals and the documentation of societal impacts from federal, state and private investments in environmental education programs.
Give it a try! Make a chart of your own when you plan your next professional development or other environmental education program. We think you will discover a new way to view your efforts –and make systemic change happen.

Cathy Rezabeck is ANROE’s Project Coordinator. She recently retired from her U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service position as statewide Outreach Coordinator after 26 years.





Marilyn Sigman is Alaska Sea Grant’s Marine Education Specialist and an Associate Professor of Marine Education in the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. She is the current Chair of ANROE’s Board of Directors.





Beverly Parsons is President and Executive Director of InSites, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization that provides inquiry-based evaluation, planning, and research to support learning, growth, and change in formal and informal social systems.

Environmental Handprints

Environmental Handprints


The Board of Ecology in Classrooms and Outdoors (ECO) created Handprints during a retreat. Top Row (left to right): Bethany Thomas, Co-founder; Adam Hixon, Board Member; Michelle (Matejka) Leifwalker, Board Member. Bottom Row (left to right): Sarah Bercume, Co-founder; Erin Rowland, Board Member.

Environmental Educators Create Handprints


by Jon Biemer

he Handprint is a paradigm whose time has come. The Handprint motivates by focusing on the positive ways to think about sustainability and follow through with appropriate action.

Over the past decade, the Handprint emerged independently in several places. India’s Center for Environmental Education (CEE) adopted a ten-year-old girl’s handprint – her name is Srija – to represent “action towards sustainability.” Gregory Norris, who teaches at Harvard University, shows how an individual or a business can be “Net Positive,” meaning our Handprint can, with intention and effort, be larger than our Footprint. Rocky Rohwedder, Professor Emeritus at California’s Sonoma State University, published an e-book, Ecological Handprints, which highlights inventions and practices that foster human needs as well as reducing environmental impacts, especially in the developing world. I also published, blogged and presented my sense that we need to go beyond the admonition to reduce our Ecological Footprint.

Whatever your emphasis, the world needs more Handprints.

A Handprint has the potential to do good long after the initiator moves on. Consider planting a tree. Choose a tree that will thrive. Plant it with care. From that point on it holds soil in place, provides perches for birds, and removes carbon from the atmosphere.

Environmental educators naturally create Handprints by planting ideas and feelings in the minds and hearts of future generations. According to systems analyst Donella Meadows, influencing how people think is one of the most effective ways to change a system.

Adults can create Handprints with young people in lots of ways.

  • Garden to cultivate a long-term relationship with the soil and the cycles of life.
  • Plant trees. Observe a tree as it grows to increase a sense of kinship.
  • Practice stewardship of our commons. Participate in stream clean-ups and invasive plant removal. Join a beach clean-up sponsored by SOLV.
  • Ride the bus, even when it is not necessary, to foster a planet-friendly lifestyle.
  • Visit an aquarium, zoo or wildlife sanctuary. Explain how they protect endangered species.
  • Talk about environmental heroes like John Muir and Rachel Carson. Invite young people to see themselves as advocates of a healthy world.
  • Tell old Indian stories. They convey a depth of wisdom that can be recalled for a lifetime.

I am especially interested in aligning our Personal Handprints to create Collective Handprints. With initiative and persistence, individual Handprints multiply over time. Many steps were required to pass the landmark Oregon Outdoor School ballot measure in 2016, a Collective Handprint. These included demonstrating the concept (as Portland educators did), initiative signature-gathering, and educating the electorate. Any park requires visionaries and champions to create awareness, planners and politicians to figure out the details, and plenty of visitors and citizens to care.

Anyone can support Collective Handprints – if he or she is aware, prepared and motivated. Therein lies a calling for environmental educators.



A Handprint Workshop

Here is how I help people embrace the Handprint after a conversation about the environment.

On a sheet of 11” by 17” paper, draw the outlines of both hands. Use colored markers if possible. The left hand represents past effort. For each finger, write down something you have already done for the environment. Modest things are okay, like recycling or signing a petition. We usually do not start from scratch.

For each finger on the right hand, write an intention relating to the environment. Start with something simple like reading The Man Who Planted Trees to a child. Can you set up an environmentally-friendly practice, like composting? Perhaps a trip on the bus to the zoo is in order. Adults might think about attending an environmental conference or testifying at a siting hearing.

Share the Handprints in small groups. (If time is limited, just focus on intensions.)

Writing down and voicing our accomplishments and intentions improve the likelihood that we will follow through. Others may not remember what I write. But I do!



Jon Biemer is writing a book titled, Healing Our Planet: How Handprints Create Sustainability. Doing business as Creating Sustainability, he provides Organizational Development consulting. For 23 years, he coordinated energy efficiency research and managed conservation programs with Bonneville Power Administration. He also gathered signatures for the successful 2016 Oregon Outdoor School ballot measure. Jon lives, with his wife Willow, in an eco-retrofit home without owning a car. The author’s website is: www.JonBiemer.com

Forest Schools

Forest Schools

When Water Speaks: The Power of the Forest School Movement

by Amanda Crawford

issouri is a treasure trove of outdoor places and wild spaces dedicated to adventurers of all kinds. The natural brilliance of the Missouri landscape is no secret. And yet, unbeknownst to many, tucked away in the heart of West County, a forest awaits discovery. But not for long…

The muffled sound of little feet treading on crunchy leaves can be heard as a small group of preschoolers make their way through the woods.

“Is the forest alive, do you think?” Molly, age three, wondered aloud.

“Of course it is! Because flowers are growing.” Nora exclaimed. She’s three, too.

“The water is talking to us,” four year old Arian stated observing the creek.

“What’s it saying?” Molly inquired.

“I’m not really sure yet.” Arian replied.

“I want to go down to the creek to listen,” said Danny, four.

And down they went, taking care to check on the friend behind them. The forest echoed with splashing water and playful laughter until the chill of early spring sent them back to dry land.

The slope was slick as wet rain boots met the muddy ground. One after another, the children climbed up the narrow path their boots had made on the way down. Grabbing onto protruding roots, low hanging branches and rocks within arm’s reach, the crew used all the resources the forest had to offer as they worked to pull themselves up. One friend, however, struggled at the base of the hill.

“Try to grab onto this stick,” Nora suggested as she extended a branch to Danny.

“No, it’s too small. We need a bigger stick. ….. How can I get up?” Danny stammered, looking up to his friends for ideas.

“Well you can climb up the way I climbed up. I had to pull on roots and it took a long time but I still got up!” Arthur, also four, explained.

Danny’s face suddenly lit up. “We can connect some sticks together! Nora can connect hers to Arthur’s and Arthur can connect his to Austin’s! Then it will be long enough!”

“But how can we stick them together? Tape?” asked Arthur.

“No, the tape is at school.” Nora reminded him.

“Mud! It’s sticky! If we leave it, it will dry and we can use it.” Arthur exclaimed.

“Look, he’s climbing! See, I knew you could do it, Danny!” Nora beamed. “And sometimes you slip and it’s okay. It just means you have to grab on really tight.”

“I can’t climb up but I have to!” Danny said resolutely.

Arian’s right. Wild places are talking to us. The forest has a lot to say to children; they are problem solvers and critical thinkers, they are compassionate and confident and filled with grit.

All of these skills came into play as the children rallied together to help their friend. Children want their communities to know something about the forest – that children have the right to play in them.

Forest school is an educational movement sweeping its way across the nation as research continues to assert the importance of time spent outdoors. Interacting with nature is as vital to one’s education as time spent in a classroom, if not more so.

Raintree is Missouri’s first Reggio Emilia inspired Forest School where children bask in the beauty of winding deer trails, wild flowers and a babbling creek every day.


Amanda Crawford is a teacher and forest school practitioner at Raintree School in St. Louis, Missouri.

Connecting to the Natural World – Biome Bonanza!

Connecting to the Natural World – Biome Bonanza!

A Biome Bonanza!

After taking a class for teachers about sustainability several years ago, my teaching partner and I were inspired to get kids out and about and connected to the natural world more. We looked at our science curriculum and with the help of Bob Carlson and his staff at our district’s CREST Center, we developed a couple of great overnight experiences for our students.

By Lisa Terrall, Bolton Elementary School
West Linn, Oregon

iving in Oregon, we have easy access to many different biomes in which living things have adapted differently to their environments and lots of locations where evidence of volcanic activity is visible. In 4th grade, we did a lot of work around plant and animal adaptations, as well as geological changes to the Earth. We developed a 4 day “Biome Bonanza,” during which we spent a day at the coast, a day in an Oak Savannah and two days in the Columbia River Gorge.

Our day at the beach is a day trip. We stop at a spot in the coast range mountains where we can find sea floor fossils at a fairly high elevation. This allows kid to begin to see evidence of plate tectonics and how the crust that used to be the sea floor was lifted and is now part of a mountain. They love discovering and trying to identify the fossils they find and are amazed at how dynamic the Earth is.

Our next stop is at the coast. We spend quite a bit of time exploring local tide pools and finding creatures that live there. Students get to see species they have researched up close and are able to begin to identify the structures and functions of their bodies and how they help with survival in that particular environment. Tide pools are great because they have multiple zones within them and the adaptations are different from zone to zone, as well as from tide pools to other surrounding environments like the ocean or the coastal forests. After our time in the tide pools we take a short forest hike, looking for how the environment is different, as well as how species have adapted for survival. We also get a good look at some of Oregon’s rocky cliffs and are able to see evidence of past basalt flows.

Our next day is spent in our town of West Linn, at a local Nature Conservancy preserve called Camassia. It is walking distance from our school and we are able to see more evidence of basalt flows, as the entire preserve is on top of columnar basalt with much of it exposed. The soil here is very thin and students are able to see how plants have adapted to this condition. They love being able to compare this to the coastal forest they were in just the day before. They are always amazed that the same basalt flow they are standing on stretches all the way to the coast and is contained in the cliffs they were able to see the prior day. It begins to give them a sense of connectivity and the magnitude of the volcanic events of the past. While we are there, we take the temperature of a pond and get a water sample to test for pH and turbidity when we return to school. Testing the water sample gives our students time to practice using the testing equipment and to recall 3rd grade learning around salmon and what they need (as far as water conditions) to survive.

The next two days of our outdoor experience is spent on the road in the Columbia River Gorge. We take our 4th graders on an overnight trip to see more evidence of the basalt flows, learn about the Missoula Floods that shaped the gorge and our local valley, and to do more comparison of the plant and animal adaptations in yet a different environment. We spend time at a wildflower preserve, taking in the panoramic views of the gorge and identifying/sketching wildflowers. Students love identifying the flowers with a plant identification book and trying to figure out their adaptations. This area is quite windy and exposed to the weather being high up at the top of the gorge, so students get to see waxy leaf coatings, things growing low to the ground and even some hairy leaves. They compare that to the large, flat, shiny leaves they had seen in days prior in the coastal forest.

We also go to a local museum to hear and see a program about the Missoula Floods. This allows students to get more information from an expert about how the gorge they have just viewed came to be. We spend time at the museum exploring the Ice Age exhibit and taking a guided walk around the grounds to hear more about and see native flora and fauna.

That night we go to pizza and swim at a local pool before crashing on the floor of a grade school.

The next day we spend time at Hood River Middle School hearing from Michael Becker and his science students about how they are continuing to strive to create a more sustainable space for learning. They have an amazing greenhouse that is ever evolving to include new and innovative things. The middle school students give our 4th graders a tour of the area, including a discussion about the geothermal energy system under the soccer field. This is a very inspiring part of the trip and spurs our students on to thinking about ways we can improve what we do at our own school.

When we leave the middle school, we head to a local falls area and go on a great hike. Students see and point out evidence of basalt flows, erosion, plant and animal adaptations and enjoy the outdoors. We also find a spot to pull out water testing equipment and run stations for students to test pH, temperature, and turbidity, as well as to collect and identify macroinvertebrate samples. This is always a highlight of the trip! At the end of our water stations, students make a determination about whether or not this stream is a healthy one for fish using their data as evidence.

Our trip is capped off by a visit to Bonneville Dam to see the fish ladders and learn how electricity of created from water flow.

Overall, we have a great trip and students gain so much! They are able to see and touch things that they have studied in science class. They make connections, ask lots of great questions and enjoy the beauty of our natural spaces. We hear back from many students and parents that they re-visit many of the locations as a family at a later time and that the students are great tour guides with lots of information to share.


As curriculum and teaching assignments have changed, we have tweaked this trip for 5th grade. We are able to review past learning about salmon, plant and animal adaptations, and geology, as well as focus on new learning about energy. This year it is a two-night, three-day trip that will include many of the above activities, but will also include a day that has a visit to the Biglow Wind Farm in Wasco to see windmills in action, and a visit to White River Falls State Park to see a now defunct powerhouse at the base of a falls. We will also spend time at a local business in Hood River learning about their commitment to renewable energy and seeing their solar roof. Our students have been researching renewable energy in class and this will give them opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors while seeing things they have previously read about.

We feel these experiences are important for students now more than ever. In an increasingly digital world, it could be easy for students to be indoors more and pay less attention to the natural world around them. In addition to making the classroom learning feel more real, these trips get kids out, get them active, and help them connect to the wonder and beauty of our natural world.