STEM Learning: Quatama School/Oregon Zoo

STEM Learning: Quatama School/Oregon Zoo


by Alison Heimowitz

Every fall students in Sharon Angal’s third-grade classroom at Quatama Elementary, a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) school in the Hillsboro School District, wait patiently for the arrival of the “salmon lady.” “She’s here, she’s here!” is heard echoing down the hallway. Older students who have already experienced raising salmon in the classroom stop to say “hi.” Entering the classroom, sixty sparkling eyes are eager to meet the salmon eggs that will be reared in an aquarium. The students will care for the eggs until they grow into fry and are released. Water temperature will be monitored and recorded and any dead fish removed by a different student every day for approximately five weeks. As the fish grow, students actively engage in a series of classroom and field-based experiences including the creation of a large mural that celebrates the salmon’s life cycle and a field trip to Tillamook State Forest Center to observe wild spawning salmon. Release of the salmon fry into the Tualatin River, an event celebrated by students and their families at Tualatin Community Park, is a unit highlight. During the winter and spring, students put on their gloves, rain jackets and waterproof boots to restore salmon habitat in a section of Rock Creek at Orchard Park.

Quatama teachers learning how to incorporate NGSS standards into the curriculum.

A unique partnership makes this project possible. Three years ago staff from Quatama, the Oregon Zoo and the Portland Metro STEM Partnership (PMSP) teamed up to bring science to life and foster environmental literacy through relevant STEAM-related educational opportunities for Quatama students. Each partner plays an important role in project success. Quatama teachers develop/co-develop and implement activities and project units articulated from grades kindergarten through sixth that are aligned to science content standards. Zoo staff provides “salmon care” technical support to teachers, assists with curriculum development, and connects teachers to other community resources. PMSP staff provides professional development to support alignment to science content standards and use of STEM education best practices as well as utilization of student STEM identity measures. Other community partners also play a critical role. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife supplies the tanks, pumps, coolers and salmon eggs; Clean Water Services and the Oregon Forest Resources Institute provides bus transportation to field trip destinations.

The partnership launched two and a half years ago and targeted third grade students and teachers with support from a Metro “Nature in Neighborhoods” grant; it now reaches every Quatama student. Two years ago, in anticipation of Oregon’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), Quatama, Zoo, and PMSP staff created a two-day professional development workshop designed to weave the salmon story through eac

A Quatama student learns about salmon fry in a classroom aquarium.

h grade while addressing relevant standards in the life science strand of NGSS. This workshop, funded by a Gray Family Foundation grant, gave teachers a better understanding of how to incorporate the new NGSS standards into their classroom curriculum and helped them begin development of the articulated K-6 curriculum. The life science units created during the workshop have continued to evolve over time. Having designated people from the Zoo and PMSP to work with each year has kept the development of new and refinement of old classroom and field experiences fresh, relevant and exciting for both teachers and students. It also has given teachers a chance to truly integrate curricular units with all components of STEM and the arts. Has the partnership made a difference in student learning? A short video (Bringing Conservation Education into Schools) developed by the Oregon Zoo Foundation provides anecdotal evidence of this project’s influence on student learning. Measurement by PMSP shows a continued growth in Student Academic Identity and Motivational Resilience (STEM Identity) (Figure 1).

Success of this partnership is based on a number of factors. First, Quatama leadership had the foresight and resources to hire a half-time TOSA (teacher on special assignment) to provide support to teachers as they carry out the school’s vision of equity to all students. Second, the basis for collaboration is one of co-creating rather than coordinating. TOSA, Zoo and Quatama staff meet together to create NGSS-aligned lessons and field experiences that are cohesive, relative, and provide meaningful learnin

Quatama students study macroinvertebrates.

g opportunities for students. A partner representative does not come in, teach, and then leave. Instead, the teacher is in charge of lessons; the partners are a resource. Teacher commitment to the process also makes a difference. Changing teaching practice is difficult and the first year is definitely hard. However, each year gets easier.

This collaboration also has proven to be a trifecta win for each of the partners. Quatama teachers have been able to learn from STEM experts how to create real world learning opportunities that inspire and motivate students to be active learners. For the Zoo, training the next generation of scientists and responsible citizens is vital to the Oregon Zoo’s mission “

Macroinvertebrate study.

Quatama students engaged in tree-planting activity during an outdoor education session.

to inspire the community to respect animals and take action on behalf of the natural world.” By partnering with Quatama, the Zoo has the opportunity to leverage its staff proficiency and deep ties within the community to provide an intensive learning opportunity. PMSP benefits by working with a school and partners dedicated to the long-term process of professional development and curriculum development/implementation.

The key to a project like this is to identify school and community partners who are looking to make long-term coordinated change to benefit students. If you would like to learn more about this partnership, feel free to contact Kristen Harrison with the Portland Metro STEM Partnership at, Alison Heimowitz with the Oregon Zoo at, or Sharon Angal with Quatama Elementary School at


All photos courtesy of Alison Heimowitz.

The Confluence Project (Idaho)

The Confluence Project (Idaho)

from the Fall 2016 Issue of CLEARING

Integrating Watershed Science in High School Classrooms:

The Confluence Project Approach


by Audrey Squires, Jyoti Jennewein, and Mary Engels, with Dr. Brant Miller and Dr. Karla Eitel, University of Idaho

It’s not just because I personally love snow and skiing and snowshoeing and all that. It’s not just because I love to teach science outdoors in the field. It’s not even just because I value connecting my students with real scientists every chance I get. It’s honestly not any one of these particular things alone that has made the Snow Science field trip the absolute favorite part of my Environmental Science curriculum over the last four years. Instead, it’s the simple notion that for this generation of teenager in the Inland Northwest, the impacts of climate change on the hydrology of snow within our watershed might be the most valuable social, economic, and ecological topic to cover in the entire school year. Snow is the backbone of our way of life in North Idaho, and the sense of awareness and empowerment my students develop as a result of this Confluence Project three-lesson unit is absolutely critical for their growth and progress as young adults heading into the 21st century. – The Confluence Project Teacher, Advanced Placement Environmental Science


C (Dakota)lean water matters, immensely, to all of us. We desperately need education that promotes deep understanding of how water is important to students. Fortunately, water as a theme is easily incorporated into numerous scientific disciplines. From the basics of the water cycle in foundational science courses to the complexities of cellular processes in advanced biology; and from energy forecasting with anticipated snow melt in economics to the nuances of water as a solute in chemistry, water is foundational to a variety of subjects and can be incorporated into the learning objectives with a little creativity and willingness to step outside the box.

Over the past three years in high schools across Northern Idaho we have been working to develop a water based curriculum that has the flexibility to be used in many types of classroom, and that provides students with firsthand experience with water and water related issues in their local watershed. The Confluence Project (TCP) connects high school students to their local watersheds through three field investigations that take place throughout an academic year. These field investigations are designed to integrate place-based educational experiences with science and engineering practices, and focus on three themes: (1) water quality, (2) water quantity, and (3) water use in local landscapes. During these field investigations, students actively collect water, snowpack, and soil data and learn to analyze and interpret these data to the ‘big picture’ of resource quality and availability in their communities.

Before each field investigation, students are exposed to the pertinent disciplinary core ideas in class (National Research Council [NRC], 2011; NGSS Lead States, 2013), explore issues present at field sites, read relevant scientific articles, and learn field data collection techniques. Students then collect data in the field with support from resource professionals. After each field investigation, students analyze their data and use the results to discuss how to solve ecological issues they may have encountered. Adults guide students through this process at the beginning, with the goal that students will develop the necessary skillset to conduct independent, community-based, water-centric research projects by the end of the academic year (Figure 1). Students are ultimately challenged to creatively communicate their research projects, including both the scientific results and their proposed solutions to environmental issues encountered in their watershed, at a regional youth research conference (e.g. Youth Water Summit).

Figure 1: The Confluence Project continuum through an academic year. Curriculum units are listed on the left and can be taught in any order. For each unit, students participate in a: pre-lesson, field investigation, and post-lesson. Students then complete individual or group research projects using the knowledge and skills built throughout the year. The culminating event, the Youth Water Summit, invites students from across the region to present the results of their independent research projects to an audience of community stakeholders, experts, and peers.

Originally created to serve as a sustainable method to continue outreach efforts from a National Science Foundation Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) grant (Rittenburg et al., 2015), the development of TCP coincided with the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013). With a strong emphasis on science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and coherent progressions (Reiser, 2013), the TCP model closely aligns with these new standards. Given that much of the curriculum developed for the older National Science Education Standards is content-focused (NRC, 1996), TCP fits the need to create curriculum that includes opportunities for students to explain how and why phenomena occur and to develop the critical thinking skills associated with scientific investigations.

tcp-2Pedagogical Framework

Sobel (1996) wrote that “authentic environmental commitment emerges out of first hand experiences with real place on a small, manageable scale” (p. 39). In TCP, authentic learning often emerges as students engage in first-hand exploration. Using the local watershed as a lens for field investigations enables students to connect with their landscapes and develop new depths of understanding of the world around them. By connecting students’ lived experiences and local landscapes with scientific information we are able to generate a unique learning setting, which in turn sparks continued interest in exploring the familiar from a new perspective. As one student from the 2015-16 program wrote:

Before the several field trips that our class went on, I had no idea how many water related issue we had on our environment (sic). After being in the field and working with experts about this topic, I now know how to inform the public, how to test if the water is clean, and how to better our ecosystem for the future. Without this hands-on experience, I would still be oblivious to the issues around me.


This localized learning approach is often referred to as place-based education (PBE), which engages students in learning that utilizes the context of the local environment (Sobel, 1996; Smith, 2002). PBE seeks to connect students to local knowledge, wisdom, and traditions while providing an authentic context to engage students in meaningful learning within their everyday lives.

TCP also uses a project-based learning (PBL) approach (Bell, 2010) to help students frame the field investigations and the subsequent analysis and interpretation of collected data as foundations for their own research projects. These practices emphasize student construction of meaningful and usable scientific concepts and, perhaps more importantly, relating these concepts to their own lived experience. For example, one student wrote the following reflection after a class water quantity field investigation:

I learned that snow is a lot more complicated than I thought. Before, I had never heard the term “snowpack.” I learned about the different layers and how they vary and can have a great affect (sic) on our watershed. This new knowledge could help me be more aware of snow and now that I understand how it works, I can watch and see how my watershed will be affected that year by the amount of snowfall.


These types of reflections demonstrate an internalization of curriculum unit topics, which in turn motivates students to continue learning.

Importantly, PBE and PBL are used as frameworks to align lessons with the NGSS. The pedagogical features of PBL match well with the eight science and engineering practices at the core of the NGSS framework, which include: (1) asking questions and defining problems; (2) developing and using models; (3) planning and carrying out investigations; (4) analyzing and interpreting data; (5) using mathematics and computational thinking; (6) constructing explanations and designing solutions; (7) engaging in argument from evidence; and (8) obtaining, evaluating and communicating information (Bybee, 2011). In TCP, these pedagogical approaches provide a meaningful context for students to engage in developing understandings of disciplinary core ideas, while the curriculum creates new, effective ways to enact the NGSS.

Empirical evaluation of student learning in the program (Squires et al., under review) indicates that after participation in TCP, students expressed greater concern for local ecological issues, recognized the efficacy of science as a tool to address environmental issues in their communities, and were more engaged in science when PBE and PBL pedagogies were used.

Project Implementation

Cross-disciplinary curriculum.

Yesterday my entomology class went to a local creek to study the bugs and life around it. It was really cool to fish a lot of bugs out of the water. We got lots of benthic macroinvertebrates such as a mayfly (dragonfly), damselflies, all in different instars (sic) [stages of growth] …. We tested the pH of the water, the transparency of the water, and the dissolved oxygen in it…This was really a fun project, it was great getting all of the bugs I’ve been learning about and it was really cool to use my knowledge about them… I suggest that anyone should go and do this, you could learn a lot about your region’s water quality. –TCP Entomology Student


TCP curriculum aligns with several Performance Expectations and Disciplinary Core Ideas from the NGSS (Table 1), and can also easily adjust to fit within multiple courses. TCP curriculum has been incorporated into less flexible, standards-driven courses like Biology and Chemistry, as well as more flexible courses like Environmental Science, Entomology, and Earth Science. While each class participates in the same three units (water quality, water quantity, and water use), teachers tailor these units to the learning objectives of their courses.

For example, environmental science teachers have been able to tie the water quantity unit to global climate change, land and resource use, and local economics. Students analyzed collected snowpack data to determine how much water would be available in their watershed for growing crops and sustaining lake and river-based tourism economies. They also compared their data to historical figures to understand how climate change has impacted water availability in their watershed over the past several decades.

By contrast, TCP biology teachers have successfully incorporated TCP units as part of their yearlong curriculum aligned with rigorous biology standards. For example, as part of the water use unit one teacher discussed sustainable water use in an agriculture setting by focusing on concepts like plant growth and cellular function. Other teachers have presented photosynthesis, primary productivity, and fisheries biology during the water quality unit, and speciation, biodiversity, and habitat as core topics during the water quantity unit.

Even in very specialized science classes there is room to engage with this curriculum. For example, one entomology teacher was able to highlight the role of macroinvertebrates as indicators of stream health when teaching the water quality unit. He taught students insect characteristics, discussed growth and metamorphism, and then showed students how to tie flies in order to solidify that knowledge in a unique, hands-on way. The class then visited a stream near their school to identify macroinvertebrates and learn their importance in evaluating water quality. Last but not least, TCP curriculum was designed for the potential of cross-course collaboration, which gives students the opportunity to apply and link concepts and skills learned in science class to their other courses while developing critical thinking skills. Several program teachers have collaborated with colleagues in their schools to integrate content across disciplines and open students’ eyes to interdisciplinary study.


Table 1: NGSS Performance Expectations targeted by lessons within TCP Curriculum and their related Disciplinary Core Ideas (National Science Teachers Association [NSTA], 2013). See Supplemental Material for detailed lesson plans.


Performance Expectations Description Disciplinary Core Idea
EARTH AND SPACE SCIENCES HS-ESS2-2 Analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth’s surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth systems. Earth Materials and Systems
HS-ESS2-5 Plan and conduct an investigation of the properties of water and its effects on Earth materials and surface processes. The Roles of Water in Earth’s Surface Processes
HS-ESS3-1 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity. Natural Resources; Natural Hazards
HS-ESS3-4 Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems. Human Impacts on Earth Systems; Developing Possible Solutions
ENGINEERING DESIGN HS-ETS1-2 Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering. Optimizing the Design Solution
HS-ETS1-3 Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts. Developing Possible Solutions
LIFE SCIENCES HS-LS1-3 Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence that feedback mechanisms maintain homeostasis. Structure and Function
HS-LS2-6 Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem. Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience
HS-LS4-5 Evaluate the evidence supporting claims that changes in environmental conditions may result in: (1) increases in the number of individuals of some species, (2) the emergence of new species over time, and (3) the extinction of other species. Adaptation


Connecting with local professionals.

The most valuable thing that we learned on our field trip to [the restoration site] was learning about the processes that were taken to restore the creek, and why they did it… We think that this field trip has shaped our understanding of these careers by actually experiencing the job and their daily tasks that can do good to the environment (sic). Following the field trip, we can say that we have a better understanding of just how time consuming and difficult the process of restoration in an area such as [the restoration site] can be. –TCP student water quality field investigation post trip reflection


Teachers often struggle to plan activities beyond the day-to-day classroom lessons, which is one reason why local professionals and leaders are an essential facet of TCP. Agency scientists, Tribal land managers, and graduate students provide scientific support to teachers and students during field investigations, in-class pre- and post-lessons, and final research projects. This gives students an opportunity to collaborate with and learn from specialists and practicing scientists in their communities, allowing the students to gain experience carrying out science and engineering practices alongside experts. In addition, students learn about career opportunities and restoration efforts in their local watersheds from TCP partners. Examples of past TCP partners include universities (extension, graduate students, and professors); Tribes (environmental agencies and Elders); state agencies (environmental quality and fish and game); federal agencies (Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Avalanche Center); and local organizations (environmental nonprofits, homeowner’s associations, and ski resorts).


Since these collaborations are critical to the success of TCP program we have developed a Reaching Out to Potential Partners checklist to help teachers contact and recruit community partners. The checklist helps teachers develop a coherent narrative to use with busy professionals which highlights the mutual benefits of collaboration.

Keeping costs to a minimum.

Admittedly, implementation requires some capital investment to cover essential program costs such as busing, substitute teachers, and field equipment. However, these costs can be minimized with some creative organization. Multiple TCP schools have been able to eliminate busing costs by using streams near or on school property. Supportive administrators can creatively minimize substitute teacher costs (in one case the principal agreed to cover the class instead). Field equipment is certainly necessary to collect data (see Resources), but the equipment required may potentially be borrowed from agencies or university partners. A classroom supply budget or a small grant from the booster club or other local organization can also help cover such costs and build supplies over several academic years. While regional youth research conferences, such as the Youth Water Summit are excellent ways to motivate students, it is possible to get the research benefits without the associated costs. We suggest inviting partners and other local experts to attend research project presentations at school. This way students can still benefit from external feedback as well as gain research and presentation skills.


TCP has provided a valuable framework for school-wide exploration of local water-related issues. TCP provides hands-on, place-based and problem-based learning while addressing key Next Generation Science Standards and preparing students for the kind of inter-disciplinary problem solving that will be increasingly necessary to address the complex challenges being our students will face as they become the workforce and citizens of the future.


The full TCP curriculum including lessons, standard alignment, field trip planning, and other recommendations can be found at:

Interested in learning more from the TCP’s leadership team? Contact us at


A program like this requires dedicated and creative teacher and program partners. Without the enthusiastic commitment of our past and present teachers and partners TCP would never have been actualized. We’d like to thank Rusti Kreider, Jamie Esler, Cindy Rust, Kat Hall, Laura Laumatia, Jim Ekins, and Marie Pengilly for their aid in program design and implementation, as well as for continued programmatic effort and support. Furthermore, thank you to Matt Pollard, Jen Pollard, and Robert Wolcott; along with graduate students Paris Edwards, Courtney Cooper, Meghan Foard, Karen Trebitz, Erik Walsh, and Sarah Olsen for your dedication to TCP implementation. In addition, we would like to acknowledge funding from the NSF GK-12 program grant #0841199 and an EPA Environmental Education grant #01J05401.           

Author Biographies

Audrey Squires, Jyoti Jennewein and Mary Engels are past program managers of TCP. Squires is currently the Restoration Projects Manager for Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council while Jennewein and Engels are PhD students at the University of Idaho (UI). Dr. Brant Miller, UI science education faculty, was the Principal Investigator of the EPA grant that funded TCP in 2015-16. Dr. Karla Eitel is a faculty member and Director of Education at the McCall Outdoor Science School, a part of the UI College of Natural Resources.


Bell, S. (2010). Project-based learning for the 21st century: Skills for the future. The Clearing House, 83(2), 39-43.

Bybee, R. W. (2011). Scientific and engineering practices in K–12 classrooms: Understanding a framework for K–12 science education. The Science Teacher, 78 (9), 34–40.

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Research Council. (2011). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), 2013. Disciplinary Core Ideas in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Final Release. Accessed 22 April 2016.

Reiser, B. J. (2013). What professional development strategies are needed for successful implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards? Paper presented at the Invitational Research Symposium on Science Assessment. Washington, DC.

Rittenburg, R.A., Miller, B.G., Rust, C., Kreider, R., Esler, J., Squires, A.L., Boylan, R.D. (2015). The community connection: Engaging students and community partners in project-based science. The Science Teacher, 82(1), 47-52.

Smith, G. A. (2002). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. The Phi Delta Kappan, 83 (8), 84–594.

Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education (No. 1). Orion Society.

Squires, A., Jennewein, J., Miller, B. G., Engels, M., Eitel, K. B. (under review). The Confluence Approach: Enacting Next Generation Science Standards to create scientifically literate citizens.

Restoration and Renewal

Restoration and Renewal

Environmental Learning Center:
Restoration project heals environment, community and college

Written by Shelly Parini, CCC senior executive project manager


T3he Environmental Learning Center at Clackamas Community College (CCC) represents something different to everyone. Some see it as a place to stroll and commune with nature. Some see it as an outdoor learning laboratory. And others see it as a pioneer in recycling.

As the college marks its 50th anniversary, the Environmental Learning Center (ELC) is entering a new phase with the restoration of the headwaters of Newell Creek on the CCC Oregon City campus.

The ELC is located on a 5-acre natural area containing the headwaters of Newell Creek. The site is part of the 1800-acre Newell Creek watershed, a steep forested canyon that is bordered by the neighborhoods and businesses of Oregon City.

The restoration efforts of the site are made possible through a Metro Nature in Neighborhood grant and the contributions of others who have stepped forward.

The restoration will:

  1. Enhance water quality within the Newell Creek watershed
  2. Increase the capacity of the ELC to serve as an educational resource for college students, schools and teachers, industry members and families
  3. Provide passive recreation for east metro communities
  4. Leverage the ongoing support of community partners committed to protecting the health and sustainability of the Newell Creek watershed

Concurrent with the restoration plans, CCC undertook an extensive community engagement initiative, the ELC Historical Preservation Project in 2016. The college invited community members, students, faculty and staff to share memories of the past, as well as dreams for the future of the site. Hundreds of people have participated in this process.

The college and the ELC have shared a long history together. The relationship, while sometimes rocky, was shaped around a vision of environmental learning and stewardship. Today, the ELC is a coveted indoor and outdoor classroom for college-wide programs such as Water and Environmental Technology. It is also continues to attract regional universities and local community educational partners to the site. As the restoration project moves forward into the summer of 2017, the college is pausing to reflect on the history of this place and the many people who shaped its shores.

The Visionaries

In his memoir “Transforming Lives,” CCC past president emeritus John Keyser wrote, “The ELC developed early in the college’s history under the leadership of President John Hakanson, as a response to intense community interest in developing new strategies for living in harmony with nature.”

ELCquote1The ELC has a rich history as an educational resource for the college, regional schools, industry and the community. Located on the site of a former Smucker’s processing plant, the ELC was created to demonstrate what people could do to reclaim industrial sites, address storm water issues and restore wildlife habitat in urban areas.

The idea of creating the ELC gained momentum in 1973, when a group of students under the leadership of Leland John, an art instructor, formed a committee and drafted a plan. “At the ELC, art, community and the environment came together in a singularly unique way, celebrating all three because people were willing to work together for the benefit of their creation,” ELC founder Jerry Herrmann said.

Herrmann had the uncanny ability to recruit volunteers and talent to the ELC. One of his more infamous efforts was recruiting the Oregon National Guard to excavate the site; transforming it into what we know today as the “ecology ponds.” Herrmann always dreamed big when it came to the ELC. In 1977 he hired Nan Hage to design the center’s first pavilion. Hage designed the building to enhance the environment. It was built in 1981 and cost a mere $10,000. Being astute recyclers, Herrmann and Hage got a much of the materials donated. All of the cabinets and flooring are Malaysian mahogany. The boards are ballast from the bottom of ships.

Recycling became a driving force for the visionaries. Herrmann developed a recycling depot at the ELC for the community. It soon became a full-service recycling center, putting the ELC on the map. In fact, it was one of the most successful recycling depots in the state at that time, handling up to 100 tons of material a year.

Stories were also recycled at the ELC. In 1984, storyteller Dean “Hawk” Edwards worked alongside volunteer coordinator Leslie Rapacki to develop and care for Hawk Haven, also known as the birds of prey exhibit.

“The goal was to create an educational wildlife habitat on an industrial site. In essence to recycle the industrial site itself,” Hage said. Clearly they did that, and then some.

In 1987, Lakeside Educational Hall was completed, providing a place for the community to gather and take classes. “Eighty percent of the construction material in this facility was simulated wood made from recycled plastics,” Keyser said. The lighting was recycled from marijuana grow lights donated by local law enforcement officers.

The next visionary to land on the scene was astronomer and scientist Ken Cameron. It was his connections that led to the Haggart family dome donation to the ELC. The Haggart Observatory, as it is now known, opened March 7, 1989, so the community could view the partial eclipse of the sun occurring that day.

The Guardians

As recycling revenue began to decline in the 1990s and CCC subsidies dwindled, the ELC suffered setbacks which strained its relationship with the college. The ELC was in need of a new champion. After a number of interim executive directors, Keyser, who was then president, stepped forward to put the ELC back on track by providing several years of stable funding and critical infrastructure updates. This investment attracted environmental educator John LeCavalier, who was hired in 1996 to reactivate the ELC.

LeCavalier’s leadership was instrumental in attracting like-minded partners, like Larry Beutler of Clearing Magazine, to the ELC [Ed note – CLEARING actually moved to the ELC several years before LeCavalier began his tenure as director.]. His contributions also include developing new programs and initiatives. He further established an endowment for the ELC that would keep it resuscitated for many years to come.

LeCavalier believes the ELC has a life of its own. During his interview he noted, “There is nothing to indicate that the tenacity of this physical place at the headwaters of Newell Creek and the people that have been involved it will not continue well into the future.”ELCquote2

When LeCavalier departed due to budget cuts in 2006, Alison Heimowitz took over as the ELC’s education coordinator. Even as a part-time instructor, Heimowitz developed critical environmental educational partnerships that are still in place today. Together, these partnerships bring hundreds of children to the site each year to learn in an outdoor living laboratory. Heimowitz was also the spark plug behind the writing and designing of the Metro Nature in Neighborhood Capital Grant, which was approved by the Board of Education in 2013. The CCC Foundation Board of Directors also stepped forward to support the grant by committing to raise the critical match to make the grant possible.

The Future

The Newell Creek Headwaters Restoration and Education Project brings together a range of public agencies, conservation groups and community members to engage in a collaborative impact initiative. This project brings to life the best of what the ELC has been and provides hope for what it still can be. After hundreds of hours of conversation with the multitude of community members who consider themselves friends of the ELC, the relevancy of this place and what it has to offer is as important today, as it ever was.

When asked about the relevancy of the ELC’s future, the retired U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley said quite simply, “Environmental learning never goes out of style.

If you would like to stay engaged with the ELC and the restoration and education efforts, visit

Wolverines, Wonder and Wilderness

Wolverines, Wonder and Wilderness

Wolverines, Wonder and Wilderness

Why the Wolverine Matters to a Kid Who Has Never Seen a Raccoon

Photo by Benjamin Drummond, NCI

by Megan McGinty

IT IS APRIL AND I AM SITTING UNCOMFORTABLY on the cobbles of a gravel bar on the Skagit River in the North Cascades National Park with a group of local fifth graders, talking about the special rocks we just found. Ranger Paula arrives and greets us, asking the kids about their day and if they’ve seen any wildlife on their hike this afternoon. Excited, they all talk at once, clamoring to describe the chipmunk that ran across the trail and the robin they tried to take pictures of as it flew into the canopy. Paula begins to talk about the wildlife research being conducted in the park by scientists and asks the children “What animal would you most like to see while you are here?”



“Mountain goat.”


At this last, my answer, the kids all turn and stare at me quizzically. Paula laughs and explains to the kids what a wolverine is and that they require a large amount of wilderness for their habitat.  “How do you know they exist?” one asks.  “Good question.” replies Paula.

For many of the kids, these two nights in a paved campground, using a bathroom with flush toilets and running water, eating out of a group kitchen with a gas stove and  a refrigerator (albeit at picnic tables under a roof with only two walls), will be the most rugged outdoor recreation experience they ever have. For nearly all of them, the most pressing environmental issues they will come to terms with will be economic, as the area’s historically resource extraction-based industries dwindle. There is less land, less water, fewer trees and not enough fish available for these kids to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents. Some of the students are already coping with the effects of illnesses caused by exposure to pesticides, industrial pollutants, lead in their drinking water and a myriad of other difficulties resulting from low-income residency. Given the realities of daily existence for some of these students, the fact that they are living within two hourís drive of one of largest areas of wildernesses within the contiguous United States is of little importance to them. Or is it?

nci_quarterpageWilderness has long held a role in Judeo-Christian culture; its effects are still felt each year as millions of devout practitioners observe Lent. A significant portion of modern American culture still grapples with the issues raised by wilderness, from literary classics such as”The Call of the Wild” to the hit TV show “Survivor”. Many aborigine cultures used wildlands as the foundational setting for rites of passage and seeking insight. As we began to define ourselves as human and civilized, we also needed to label that which we were distinguishing ourselves from. It seems that as soon as man began to exist, so did wilderness.

Environmental education first came about as a movement when conservationists and educators recognized the effects of an increasing disconnect between society and the natural world. The need to rekindle that connection inspired efforts to get kids out into the woods, to take them out into the wild, because that’s  where “real” nature was. It was assumed that a big part of the reason for the growing alienation from nature was due to the fact that there was no nature worthy of inspiring a connection in the cities and suburbs we live in. As school budgets tightened, the likelihood of such field trips and opportunities became scarce. At the same time, many thinkers began exploring the connections made to the natural world during childhood and realized that for many kids, it happened in the more common places such as vacant lots or backyards, places that they were allowed to have daily contact with. Educators began to wonder if the connections being made had less to do with the “wow” factor than with intimacy and immediate relevance.

Recent trends in environmental education have rendered the phrase ìplace-based-educationî a hot term, and rightly so. More curricula are available that allow the local schoolyard or drainage ditch to be a laboratory for ecological study. Innovative teachers have devised lessons that allow even the most urban settings to serve as the source for environmental theory. Students living in heavily-impacted areas are now more likely to be exposed the concepts behind environmental justice than to a canned curriculum about the Brazilian rainforest. By bringing a concrete (literally) relevance to the students’ daily lives, environmental education is being brought closer into the fold as a valid academic discipline.

The problem is this: wonder thrives on apparent irrelevance. I think of my friend Diego, born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the South Bronx. When he was fifteen, he went to a wilderness program in the Appalachians for students from the South Bronx High School who spoke English as a second language.
Incredibly out of place in an alien land and culture, he fell in love with climbing and returned to the program as an intern and later as a staff member. He now spends his free time in alpine wildernesses and climbs in some of the most remote parts of North America.

In this more recent vein of locally-focused programs, many kids are not introduced to the large chunks of land and water that are todayís wildernesses. This is often done with the assumption that this is best for them. Every educator is charged with the task of assigning importance to some lessons over others.  The best educators begin with assessing what their students already know and where they are coming from.

There are many students with a wide range of experiences, so a sort of middle ground is aimed for, that is, the lessons are designed for the greatest commonalities among the students and the experiences they are most likely to already have. To be sure, Diego is an anomaly, but he is also an example of a student that flourished by getting a chance to see the wide world beyond his backyard.

It can easily be argued that a wilderness area isn’t needed to teach a group of fifth graders what watershed they live in or where their food comes from. A significant number of environmental education programs never reach a point where wilderness issues become pertinent and of those that do, there is rarely room in the curriculum for the issue. However, an educational program that is not prepared to address the question of wilderness is limited in its ability to handle the larger philosophical questions that environmental education tends to beg. (Should we preserve lands? Which ones? Why? What is ‘preservation’?, etc.) Even though the instructors often have to work with constraints such as lesson time, program length, or student background, they need a solid fundamental philosophy from which to base their lessons in order to effectively grapple with the more abstract aspects, the “big questions” of environmental education.

As we make lessons more real and connect them more intimately to students’ daily lives, we must not forget the importance of the great unknown. Appealing to the sense of wonder, to the promise of discovery, is of essential importance when convincing future generations to become active conservationists. When we introduce schoolchildren to the mysteries of their backyards, we cannot answer every question, nor should we try to. If they receive the message that all the answers have been found, that everything is under control and fully explained, there will be no reason for them to continue discovering and questioning.

By presenting the backyard as what it is, a test case, a fraction, a tightly bound series of parameters that can only serve as the roughest of sketches for the great ecological mysteries of the wildlands, we are giving them the most honest of lessons. No longer are they schoolchildren on an outing following a curriculum designed to lead them towards a predetermined outcome. They have been initiated as citizens of the planet who will play a role in shaping its future. How these kids will feel about their role in the environment can be decided by whether or not they know or don’t know that there are places on the planet where human impact is not yet a primary shaping factor.

Environmental issues cannot be conveniently contained with the boundaries of a city, state or even a country. Instead, they ignore the abstract divisions we have attempted to draw and reinforce the interdependence of ecosystems on both big and small levels. We need clean air, clean water and healthy soil, and preserving the areas that are still reservoirs of these things is as important as cleaning up the areas that are dangerously contaminated. Letting kids think that recycling and picking up litter will be sufficient to address the current and pending environmental issues is not far from lying to them.

The value of something beyond that which we know and see in our daily lives is of absolute importance when trying to convince people to work towards a goal that does not have immediate or tangible results. Kids need to be encouraged and to believe their efforts will have results, but we should not deceive them about the magnitude or pace of environmental progress.  They will need inspiration for the work that lies ahead, be it in the form of a magnificent photo in National Geographic, a video of an amazing rainforest or tales of strange and fantastic creatures that live in remote wildlands.

When I was young, before I could read very well, one of my favorite books was a Dr. Seuss volume titled “McElligot’s Pool”. The story is simple: a farmer is teasing a boy named Marco who is fishing in McElligot’s  Pool, a small pool in the middle of  a cow pasture that people throw junk into. He thinks Marco will catch nothing but an old shoe. Marco concedes that the farmer may be right, but wonders if the pool could be connected to an underground river that flows to the sea. He imagines the progression of the secret river that connects the puddle to the great sea and the increasingly more bizzare creatures that live there. As a kid, I was absolutely captivated by the idea that the mundane things in my backyard could be connected to bigger, more exotic things that lay far beyond. Suddenly, pretending to be exploring the Amazon while catching and identifying spiders in the vacant lot next to my friend’s house did not seem quite so farfetched. In fact, it made the spider-hunting seem less like playing and more like training for someday exploring the great unknowns that still remain in the wildlands.

Megan McGinty lives in Bellingham, WA and is an Environmental Educator with North Cascades Institute. Photo by Benjamin Drummond.


4-H Urban-Rural Exchange

4-H Urban-Rural Exchange


By being on the land and walking in the shoes of their host families, students begin to understand more deeply how and why Oregonians manage the land the way they do.

By Maureen Hosty
With contributions from Gary Delaney, Deb Schreiber, John Williams, Jed Smith and Shana Withee

OSruralB_0164regon is a state of great socioeconomic and geographic diversity. While this diversity brings strength, it also challenges Oregonians to meet the needs of all communities. This divide is mostly deeply felt around natural resource management issues. Oregon cities are now so culturally isolated from the country that clashes between urban and rural Oregon occur frequently when it comes to grazing, logging, wilderness and wildlife. That was the world Portland urban youth walked into when they took a stand in defense of wolves in 2005 at a public Fish and Wildlife hearing. Ranchers howled in protest. Yet, just as it seemed Oregon’s urban-rural divide had grown into an unbridgeable chasm this conflict ended when 4-H stepped in. 4-H staff from urban and rural Oregon along with a handful of ranchers from rural Grant County did the unexpected. They invited kids from urban Portland middle school to live and work along side them and see a rancher or farmers side of life.

Today the 4-H Urban-Rural Exchange involves youth as a catalyst for change for a sustainable Oregon future by providing a venue for rural and urban youth and families to share their stories, their lifestyles, their beliefs and their practices for managing the land for the next generation. Through this program, urban youth and their adult chaperons travel to rural Eastern Oregon to live and work alongside 4-H ranch and farm host families for 6 days. Likewise, rural youth travel to Portland with adult chaperons to live and work alongside their 4-H urban host family.

rural_0202The program provides youth who are too often exposed to viewpoints on one side of an issue, a first hand experience on the land. It is this experience of being on the land and walking in the shoes of their host family that youth can begin to understand more deeply how and why Oregonians manage the land the way they do.

Through the process of developing this program 4-H Faculty quickly learned that a key to helping youth understand the the natural resource issues as well as the sustainability and resiliency of their host community, youth first need some knowledge about the dynamics of the influential social, environmental, and economic systems that underlie them. Thus, while the program began as a response to the issue of the reintroduction of wolves in Oregon, in the end the program is designed to help youth understand the broader social, cultural and economic issues within rural and urban Oregon and the interdependence between both sides of the state.

During their stay with their host family youth participate in daily chores in caring for the land with their host family. More importantly though, youth are involved in all aspects of community life of their host family. The attend school for a day, participate in community events, shop at the local store, attend a local sports game, meet local neighbors and sometimes attend church to name a few of the activities.

Program Design

Participant Selection Process

IMG_1535.JPGApproximately 40-50 youth are selected to participate in this exchange each year. Youth selected to participate in this program must submit a 4-H program application and get approval from their school administrator and principal. Teachers and 4-H staff screen youth applications. Youth are selected for their commitment and openness to learn and their potential for serving as an ambassador for their community. Participating youth must also commit to giving a presentation back home about what they learned during their 6-day exchange. Once they are selected youth are paired with another student of the same gender and then matched with a host family. All youth are expected to write a letter of introduction to their host family.

Likewise, 8-10 adult chaperons are also selected to participate in this program. All adult chaperons must complete the OSU Extension 4-H Leader screening process and undergo a criminal background clearance. Chaperons are recruited and selected from teachers, parents and community partners.

Host families for this program are recruited from current 4-H and OSU Extension families. All adults in the host family must complete a background information application and participate in a host family site visit by the 4-H Extension faculty. Host families are selected for their ability to provide a meaningful experience for their visiting youth or adult chaperons.


Prior to loading in the vans and heading across the mountains to their host family, all youth and adult participants in the program must first complete a series of 4-H educational programs designed to prepare them for their experience. A 30-minute introductory program is provided at the beginning for the school year to introduce all potential students to the program and explain the application process. A series of 2-3 follow up educational sessions are held over the next several months. These educational sessions focus on the social, cultural and environmental issues of their host communities; cross-cultural communication and understanding; and sustainable urban and rural agriculture.

A mandatory one-hour orientation is held for all participating chaperons, youth and their parents. Participating chaperons also participate in additional training related to the roles and responsibilities of being a chaperon.

During the Exchange

rural_0083Four six-day exchanges from urban to rural Oregon take place the same week in April. Urban 4H youth travel to multiple communities in Harney County, Grant County, Wallowa County and Klamath County. A few weeks later, youth from rural Oregon travel to urban Portland for a 5-day exchange.

Traveling to their host community takes several hours and generally includes brief stops at historical and/or natural landmarks within the state. A lunch stop is held at a local 4-H Extension office along the route.

Once youth and their chaperons arrive at their host county 4-H office, the program begins with a potluck dinner with all the host families and visiting youth and chaperons. The potluck is designed to give youth and chaperons the opportunity to meet their host families, participate in icebreaker activities, and learn about the guidelines and expectations for the week.

During their stay with their rural host family Portland youth work alongside ranchers and farmers from rural eastern Oregon to learn the joys and challenges that comes with real rural life. Some activities include: caring and feeding livestock, vaccinating animals, branding cattle, chopping wood, and cleaning barns. Urban youth learn that ranching and farming is a 24-hour around the clock profession and caring for their livestock involves even checking on their livestock at 2 am. Urban youth also attend a school for the day in their rural community host school. In some cases urban youth who are use to attending school with 500+ students in three grades are surprised to find some rural schools with less than 100 students in 12 grades.

SruralB_0202Likewise, rural middle school youth visit Portland to learn about the joys and challenges of urban life. Rural youth live and work alongside urban families and explore issues relevant to Portland such as transportation, greenspaces preservation, urban agriculture and water management. Rural youth learn how to use public transportation, visit a farmers market and/or community gardens, tour a waste treatment plant , or visit a recycling center. They also attend school for a day. Unlike back home in their community, rural youth visiting urban Portland walk to school or ride their bike. In some cases rural youth learn that urban students get to school by public transportation.

On the sixth and final day of the exchange, visiting youth and chaperons and their host families return to the local 4-H Extension office to participate in a debriefing activity and to say final goodbyes.

Post Program

Once youth return from their experience living with a host family across the urban-rural divide, the program does not stop. Participating youth are divided into teams of 3-4 youth. Each team is expected to prepare and deliver a 15-20 minute presentation to the rest of their school about what they learned during the exchange.

More important, however, many youth continue their education beyond the 4-H program. Over 1/3 of the youth who have particpated in this program reported that they went back to visit their host family in the summer and took their own family with them. Several families in one Portland community also began a beef cooperative with their 4-H host ranch family.

rural_1098-1Program Impacts

Outcome evaluations indicated significant changes in attitude, knowledge and understanding of socioeconomic and environmental issues from both sides of the divide. A four year evaluation found changes in knowledge and attitudes among both urban and rural participants. 119 urban participants and 43 rural host family members participated in the study.

Urban participants reported significant changes in attitudes in:

1) Knowing about the lifestyles, beliefs and ways of living of rural Oregonians; 2) Understanding the beliefs and practices for managing the land by rural Oregonians; 3) Understanding how the actions of urban Oregonians impact rural Oregon natural resource management; 4) Their awareness of rural Oregon stereotypes; 5) Knowing the commonalities urban and rural Oregonians have in managing their land; 6) Their belief that ranchers have a respect and understanding of how to best manage their land.

Rural participants reported significant changes as well in:

1) Knowing about the lifestyles, beliefs and ways of urban youth; 2) Their belief that most urban Oregonians are open to hearing all sides of natural resource issues; 3) Their awareness of urban Oregon stereotypes; 4) Their belief that urban Oregonians have a respect and understanding of how to best manage urban natural resources.

IMG_1022.JPGToday, over 600 youth and family members have participated in this program since it began in 2006. Many of these 600 Oregonians will likely spend the rest of their lives living and working in their same respective part of the state. They might never step foot on the other side of divide. But from this day forward, they will have a different idea about the kind of people they share the state with and how they are managing their natural resources. And when that time comes when another issue around the managementt of our natural resources divides this state, these 4H youth, 4-H leaders and 4-H host families will have someone they know and trust that they can reach out to and get their input and insights on the issue.

To learn more about this program, the program sponsors and partners, or how to become involved, please contact us:

Maureen Hosty, 4-H Youth Development, Metro 4-H
Phone: 971-361-9628






Since the program began in 2006, there have been a total of 34 Exchanges between urban and rural Oregon. Three hundred and eight urban youth youth and 74 urban adult chaperons have traveled across  Oregon to live and work alongside 130 rural families (a total of 434 Rural Oregonians). The program has since expanded from 4 counties to 8 counties: Multnomah, Grant, Klamath, Wallawa, Harney, Wheeler, Gilliam and Morrow. 4-H Faculty and staff are busy preparing for the 2016 Exchanges which will take place March 31-April 5th. Participants in the exchange will be recruited from 4-H Youth and Adults from 4-H Clubs and 4-H Partner Schools. For more information about this program please contact: Maureen Hosty OSU Extension Faculty Portland Metro Area 4-H 3880 SE 8th Ave #170 Portland, OR 97202 PH 971-361-9628 | cell 503-360-6060 | fax -971-361-9628

All Photos: Lynn Ketchum





A While in the Wild: Educating for Environmental Empathy

A While in the Wild: Educating for Environmental Empathy

Womens couleeA While in the Wild: Educating for Environmental Empathy

Experiences in wild nature, the leadership of a significant adult, and the educational support of the classroom offer powerful tools in shaping students toward lifelong leadership in environmental stewardship.


by Fay Mascher M.Ed., Cayley School
Jonas Cox Ph.D., Gonzaga University
Charles Salina Ph.D., Gonzaga University

On a visit to the coulee, a startled owl exploded off of a nest that we thought was empty. On the bus ride back to school, one boy reached for my hand, “Feel my heart,” he said. “It’s still going really fast.” –from the Cayley School action research project

Since the 1980’s, researchers in environmental education have explored this basic question: Why do some people care about the natural environment enough to protect it, while others do not? Current environmental education, taught as a unit of instruction within the science curriculum, tends to assume that imparting information about the environment will inspire students to care for it. But a generation of young people educated in this way has not yielded a generation of adults committed to caring for the natural world.

The people of Cayley School, situated in a rural hamlet about one hour south Calgary, Alberta, struggled with a similar dynamic. In the spring of 2005, the teachers, parents, community members, and students of this small school (150 students in kindergarten through eighth grade) met with the Stewardship Centre of Canada to explore what their school could do to foster care of the natural environment.

The Youth Environmental Stewardship Program (YES) was born, sparking much activity at Cayley School. The school maintains ten photovoltaic units and a small wind turbine to provide three kilowatts of power to the grid. Students and staff participate in a thorough recycling program. An environment club meets weekly. Classroom instruction pursues cross-curricular inquiry into many environmental issues. Recognized in the media, and given multiple awards for environmental projects, Cayley School has laid strong ground work for meeting the goals of the YES project.

However, in a meeting of YES stakeholders in the fall of 2007, consensus emerged that the specific vision of the program—shaping students toward lifelong leadership in environmental stewardship—was not being realized. Students did not display a general ethic of stewardship, nor were they eager to fill leadership roles in the YES program .

Thorough environmental instruction combined with exciting school-wide environmental projects had failed to translate into genuine environmental stewardship. Why? There it was again, that thirty-year-old question: Why do some people care about the natural environment enough to protect it, and others do not?

Where does environmental stewardship come from?

Researchers in the field of environmental education have approached that question in a variety of ways. Tanner read the biographies of conservationists looking for patterns in their early experiences that might explain their lifelong care of the environment. In these biographies, and in a subsequent survey, he discovered that conservationists consistently report having spent a significant amount of time as children in wild or semi-wild places.

Subsequent studies had similar findings: time spent in wild or “domesticated” nature correlates significantly with subsequent environmentally responsible behavior. Wells and Lekies investigated the optimal age for these experiences and concluded that, “participation with ‘wild’ nature before age 11 is a particularly potent pathway toward shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood” .

AwhileQuote1Many of these studies discovered that when these nature experiences are shared with an important adult–a family member or a teacher—positive environmental behaviors are strengthened. During shared experiences in nature, a child becomes aware of the environment by attending to the bird, leaf, or rock that has captured the attention of the adult companion. Chawla calls this the power of joint attention. The child turns his or her attention to things pointed out by an adult, and then begins to do the same, pointing at things and calling out their names. An adult noticing nature helps a child take the first steps toward becoming environmentally aware.

Shared adult/child experiences in wild nature moves a child into a process by which stewardship behavior develops. The stages of that development can be compared to the evolution of a loving relationship between two people. In both cases there is a five step process: awareness, knowledge gathering, coming to appreciate, coming to love, and acting to protect.

Once the child has become aware of the natural environment, through the power of joint attention, she begins to gain knowledge about nature by interacting with it, by experimenting first-hand. The theory of ecological psychology describes how the natural world provides opportunities for interactive learning.   For example, a low tree branch allows a child to climb; rough ground affords the opportunity to establish balance. Nature offers a rich environment for these interactions, and provides immediate and often powerful feedback to all of the senses. Free play in nature, then, begins a relationship between the child and the natural world.

First a child is exposed to nature, then, he spends times interacting with it. Now he is ready for the knowledge building activities he finds in environmental education curricula in the schools. Students learn facts about the local environment from books and teachers. The more this learning serves to directly explain, support, and deepen the students’ hands-on outdoor experiences, the more meaningful it is.

In the grassThe more children learn about a place the more they appreciate it.   Going forward, they maintain interest in it and show simple, environmentally responsible behavior when they are there. Lindemann and Matthies found that the more plants and animals children could identify in the field, the more appreciation they would show for all kinds of plants and animals.   Increased knowledge of nature leads to increased appreciation of nature. Increased appreciation sparks more frequent visits to the natural world and increases the length of each visit.

Appreciation deepens to a feeling of love as the child begins to identify and empathize with the natural world. Once that attachment is formed, the child consistently exhibits environmentally responsible behavior in that place. Attachment to one special place will often generalize to changed behavior in other settings.

Unfortunately, most children today have little, if any, experience in wild nature, with or without a significant adult. In his fifteen years of interviewing families across the United States, Louv found:

With few exceptions, even in rural areas, parents say the same thing: Most children aren’t playing outside anymore, not in the woods or fields or canyons. A fifth-grader in San Diego described his world succinctly: ‘I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are’

As outdoor experience becomes less common, environmental education gains importance. It is here that children can be reconnected with “the restorative, challenging, primal qualities of nature” and guided through hands-on, personally meaningful activities, that construct an empathetic knowledge of the natural world.

Effective Environmental Education—three considerations

Experiences in wild nature shared with an important adult are vital components of successful environmental education. Further studies insist, however, that they are not the only considerations when designing experiences aimed at forming an ethic of stewardship.

Effective environmental education programs share several common features. They are experiential and personally meaningful . They are developmentally appropriate. They provide opportunity both for deeper understanding and for the application of new insights.

Experiential and personally meaningful

John Dewey, in 1891, articulated the importance of building connections between school and personal life:

From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school. That is the isolation of the school, its isolation from life

Duffin and Gostev and Weiss show that environmental education programs that succeed in increasing environmentally responsible behavior provide students with hands-on learning and abundant opportunities to make personal connections.

Developmentally appropriate

Research investigating children’s relationship with the natural world shows three clear stages of development. From age four to six a child connects with the immediate world through his empathy for living things, particularly animals. From age seven to eleven the child’s desire to explore becomes stronger–exploration activities become appropriate. It is not until the age of twelve that students typically can begin to deal with tragedies, so at this age social action can become a focus.

Environmental education that is developmentally insensitive can do more harm than good. Sobel especially cautions against introducing ecological problems to a child who has not developed the power of abstract thinking. Such premature calls to action will distance the child from the natural environment.

Developmentally appropriate curriculum, on the other hand, nurtures a strong connection to the natural environment in stages. First a child connects with her immediate environment, then to an expanding local landscape, and finally to the global environment. Formed in those experiences, she takes action when she is ready.

Opportunities for deeper understanding

Environmental education explores situations where the “correct” answer can be ambiguous. Students become equipped to respond to such complexity when, in the context of nature, they are coached through a process of assessment and judgment. Educators begin by teaching basic environmental knowledge, but the process does not stop there. Students learn to weigh the competing values that often make environmental decision-making difficult. Such experiences equip students to take action and allow them to assume increasing ownership of environmental problems.   Students feel empowered and confident as they apply knowledge to action. Students who have been coached in this way—prepared to think critically when faced with complex problems–are more likely to exhibit complex, environmentally responsible behavior.

Developing environmental empathy at Cayley School

Armed with research and eager to realize Cayley School’s vision to foster environmental stewardship, we designed a five-month environmental experience for the kindergarten class. From October ‘07 to March ’08 fourteen five and six year olds,eight boys and six girls of mixed socio-economic circumstances and academic and social ability, participated in a place-based environmental education model aimed at building environmental empathy and responsibility.

Because research emphasizes the powerful outcomes of time spent in wild nature with an important adult, our program design involved frequent outdoor experiences led by the kindergarten teacher. There were two components to the outdoor experience. The class frequently visited and explored natural environments within walking distance of the school. We also designated a more distant, wilder location (fifteen minutes away by bus) as Our Special Place and visited it several times throughout the duration of the project.

SloughTime in wild nature

Outdoor experiences in the surrounding environment happened daily. These were initially scheduled for the same time each day in order to create a habit of outdoor learning time. As outdoor time became entrenched in the day, access to the outdoors became more spontaneous and flexible.

Planned outdoor activities were drawn from resources such as Thomson and Arledge. (2002). Five Minute Field Trips: Teaching about Nature in Your Schoolyard; Cornell, J.B. (1979). Sharing Nature with Children; and Sobel, D. (2004). Place Based Education.   Planning was informed by Wilson’s (1986) guidelines: begin with simple experiences, provide frequent positive outdoor experiences, and focus on experiencing versus teaching.

The schoolyard at Cayley School offered many rich opportunities. Off the gravel of the play structure, there is a terraced, bushy Memorial Garden, big poplar trees, long grass, and ready access to fields. A fifteen minute walk north of the school yard offers a hay field and slough. Activities in the schoolyard and at the slough were planned with “wildness in mind” in order to maximize the positive influence of wild nature mentioned in the literature. Over the course of the five month study, a new subdivision being built north of Cayley expanded toward the slough and blocked the walking path for two weeks. The new construction presented an unexpected opportunity for conversation and questions.

Five times over the course of the project the class visited Our Special Place, an intact buffalo jump surrounded by native grassland called “Women’s Coulee.” We timed our visits so that students could experience the coulee across the seasons–late fall, winter and spring. Our activities at the coulee mirrored our daily outdoor activities within Cayley; however the trips to the coulee were far richer and more spontaneous due to its diversity and wildness. On one trip the students were able to study large, perfectly formed snowflakes that covered the ground. On another the group startled a female great horned owl off of a nest that we had assumed to be empty. On a return trip, with binoculars to study the owl, the students found prairie crocuses blooming.

An important adult

Remembering the role of a significant adult in shaping environmental responsibility, we carefully considered the teacher’s contribution to the children’s experience. The teacher enthusiastically supported the children’s budding sensitivity for wild places, demonstrating personal interest and enjoyment, and modeling care and respect for the natural environment. In order to broaden the network of important adults, parents and other community members were invited to join as assistants and fellow nature-learners.

Supporting nature experiences in the classroom

We made changes within the classroom to support our outdoor experiences. Curricular instruction integrated environmental themes. The space and routines within the classroom were also re-designed. Following their explorations, students came into the classroom to record their observations and research their questions. Reference books were readily available. Art materials were on hand to encourage students to represent their nature discoveries with their own hands and in various media. Nature journaling became a regular part of the experience as it is “hands-on learning at its best”.

The room decorations reflected a focus on our natural place, as well as the human penchant for displaying nature in interior spaces.   Natural materials were used as much as possible. Students were given an opportunity to share nature treasures on a well-lit discovery table at their viewing height.


Quantitative and qualitative data, gathered in pre-tests and post-tests, show that the kindergarten children at Cayley School built greater knowledge, developed keener interest, and formed more positive attitudes toward the natural environment as a result of our five-month trial.

Asked to identify the photographs of 16 local native animals in a pre-test and post-test, the group increased their correct answers by 32 percent. An increase in animal knowledge is a very powerful first step toward environmental stewardship. Lindemann and Matthies found that the more plants and animals children could identify in the field, the more appreciation they would show for all kinds of plants and animals.

An attitude questionnaire administered as a pre-test and post-test, measured the students’ empathy and emotional affinity with the natural world. Questions were designed to explore their concern for animals and plants, their participation in animal make-believe, evidence of love of nature, and whether they have feelings of freedom, of safety, and of oneness while in nature. A response of “no” to a question such as: Is it a good idea to pick wildflowers? was marked “positive” because it showed a protective attitude toward the natural environment.   Positive student responses on the attitude questionnaire increased 23% on the post-test.

When students were invited to explain why and why not on their answers to the post-test attitude survey, an interesting change emerged. Many students took longer to answer the questions than they had on the pre-test, now having to sort out an issue that was no longer obvious to them. For example, on the pre-test many students quickly and confidently stated that the spider should not be put outside, but should be killed. On the post-test students talked about the fact that spiders might bite or make a mess with their webs, explained methods for picking the spider up, and considered carefully before giving their response. Some students felt the need to explain behaviors that they now felt were inconsistent with what we had been learning.   When asked if it was a good idea to pick wild flowers, some explained that they did pick wild flowers, but only in places where there were lots of flowers.

Prior to and again following the trial, students drew a map showing special places that they could go to around the school. Pre-test maps showed a fairly equal representation of natural and man-made features. On the post-test, however, 83% of the features drawn on the post-test maps were natural. There were no animal drawings in the pre-test maps, but animal drawings were included in almost all of the post-test maps. The scope of the maps also expanded. Pre-test maps were almost all restricted to the boundaries of the school yard. The post-test maps showed a much wider geographic scope, indicating a broadening view of the world around the school and an expanding awareness that other creatures live in the places close to us.


The children of Cayley School kindergarten will perhaps never forget the excitement of seeing a startled owl explode off of a nest that we thought was empty. One boy said to his teacher on the bus ride back to school, “Feel my heart. It’s still going really fast.” The children who participated in the project developed a genuine, excited sense of connection to the natural world. They became eager to learn more. They developed more complex environmental thinking and showed a willingness to consider their decisions in relation to nature much more carefully.

Our educational trial brought the people of Cayley School closer to the vision they formed back in the spring 2005 when the Youth Environmental Stewardship Program (YES) was born. Experiences in wild nature, the leadership of a significant adult, and the educational support of the classroom offer powerful tools in shaping students toward lifelong leadership in environmental stewardship.


Fay Mascher began her teaching career with a variety of special education teaching positions in B.C. and Alberta. In 1992 she settled in High River and soon thereafter began her work at Cayley School where her focus has been primary education. In addition to her keen interest in environmental education, Fay was instrumental in the founding of the Cayley School strings program which now delivers violin instruction to students from Kindergarten to Grade 5. 

Jonas Cox teaches Learning Theory to undergraduate teacher candidates and currently serves as the Chair of Teacher Education at Gonzaga University. He has been active in the Environmental Education field for some time working with the Pacific Education Institute and recently serving as the Treasurer of EEAW. He can be reached at

Chuck Salina is on the Gonzaga University School of Education faculty and is currently serving as the Turn Around Principal for the high school in Sunnyside Washington. His interest in social justice issues and high quality educational experience for youth has drawn him into environmental education. Chuck can be reached