Earth Connections: Science Through the Seasons

Earth Connections: Science Through the Seasons

Kindergarten students admire a sunflower held by an Oxbow Farmer Educator while snacking on carrots during their fall field trip. Photo credit: 2016 Jess Eskelsen

Science Through the Seasons

by Shea Scribner
Oxbow Farm and Conservation Center
Carnation WA

igns of the shifting seasonal cycle are all around us. Children are especially keen to notice and appreciate the changing colors of leaves, frantic activities of squirrels, and blossoms slowly turning to fruits on apple trees, but how often do they really get to explore these wonders of nature at the place most specifically designed for learning—their school? With so many subjects to teach and standards to meet, how can teachers follow their students’ passions and incorporate environmental education into their curricula? With an entire class of kids but only one or two teachers to supervise, is venturing outside the classroom a safe and productive use of precious class time?

Beginning in 2016, with funding from an Environmental Protection Agency grant (EPA grant #01J26201), Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center’s team of Farmer Educators and Frank Wagner Elementary School’s Kindergarten teachers dug into these questions to co-develop and teach monthly environmental education lessons in the classroom, around the schoolyard, and on the farm. Through intentional relationship-building meetings and workshops with the teachers, we worked to better understand the specific needs and opportunities we could address through the new partnership between our nonprofit organization and their public school. We found that by following the natural curiosities kids have about the world outside their classroom window, we could address curricular and behavioral challenges and build programs that both captivated the student’s attention and nurtured their enthusiasm for learning. The early learner-focused lesson plans and activities, best practices, and key lessons learned from the project now populate an online compendium on the Oxbow website. We seek to share our story with other formal and informal educators who are working to address similar challenges, and spark ideas for how to incorporate seasonal, developmentally appropriate, place-based environmental education into their practice.

The “Earth Connections: Science Through the Seasons compendium takes the form of a beautiful tree, a fitting metaphor for a natural system where all parts contribute to the tree’s wholeness and growth to reach its full potential. The roots and trunk serve as the main base of support for plants, representing the foundation and core of our growing partnership with the school—take a peek into the planning process involved in this project, other organizations we partnered with, academic literature which informed our lessons and methods, and best practices for working with students and fellow educators. The branches growing from the sturdy trunk are specific place-based and Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS)-supportive lesson plans, suggested activities, and short videos recorded by the Oxbow educators, linking learning themes throughout the three seasons of the public-school year: fall, winter, and spring. With the overall goals of connecting lessons to the students’ specific environment and building skills of science investigation and inquiry, each experience was additive and built upon to together tackle the NGSS of K-LS1-1: “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals need to survive.”

Much like our tree changed through the seasons, the students involved in the journey with us sprouted, grew, and transitioned throughout the school year. We invite you to channel the mind of a child as we guide you through the journey of a Frank Wagner Kindergartener experiencing outdoor EE with Oxbow and their teachers.


A volunteer farm naturalist asks kindergarten students about the crops they’re finding on the Kids Farm during a fall fieldtrip. Photo Credit: 2017 Jess Eskelsen


Throughout this season, the remaining produce is plucked from Oxbow’s farm fields and pumpkins begin to turn from shiny orange to fuzzy black goo. As vibrant native trees and shrubs drop their leaves, humans and critters alike stash away the remaining treats of the season and work to prepare their homes for the cold, dark winter ahead. So too, young people across the region pack their backpacks full of snacks and supplies, bundle up in rain gear, and transition from summer beaches and sunlit backyards into the warm halls of their school every fall.

For some kindergarteners at Frank Wagner—a Title 1 school where many did not have the opportunity to attend preschool—the first time they transition into the fall season in the classroom can be understandably scary. The students are navigating a whole new environment, different schedule, and unfamiliar social expectations, all without the support of the primary caregivers whom they’ve relied on for so many seasons prior. Teachers are faced with the exceptional task of setting routines, helping every student feel safe, and helping students understand their role in their new classroom community. We found that many of the challenges of the early school year can be addressed through activities and practices that focus on building trust, sharing personal stories, and setting expectations for the new relationships students will build with teachers and one another.

Two students sit together behind large rhubarb leaves, playing a game of hide-and-seek (and finding hidden frogs and insects living in the field) during their spring fieldtrip. Photo Credit: Jess Eskelsen

Oxbow Educators visited the classrooms in the fall and collaborated with the students to construct a “CommuniTree” contract. Together, we used the structures of an apple tree to guide discussion of what sweet “fruits” both students and teachers hope to reap from their experience at school and on the farm, which “beehaviors” will help those fruits mature, and what obstacles to learning might be acting as big “rocks” in the soil, keeping the class’ roots from growing strong. We then began exploring the concept that learning can happen both in the classroom and outdoors through the Inside-Outside sorting activity. Students were given opportunities to express their own understandings of food and nature through prompted drawings, which we used as a baseline for assessing student growth throughout the school year. The Kindergarteners also came out to Oxbow for a Fall Farm Adventure, an introduction to how food grows and the many plants and animals that call a farm home, stoking their curiosity and excitement about the ongoing Farmer visits throughout the year. The fall season also included an introduction to the concept of “habitat,” a recurring and kindergarten-friendly theme that connected student learning about plant and animal needs throughout the rest of the year.


For most of us on the west side of the Cascades, winter is cold, dark, and most of all, WET. Farm fields throughout the Snoqualmie River Valley rest quietly under risk of flood while puddles grow into lakes in school parking lots. Rain has shaped the landscape for thousands of years and water continues to connect rural farmland with urban neighborhoods. Dormant plants focus on underground root growth, and many animals must also conserve energy by hibernating or digging deep into warm piles of decomposing fall leaves to survive frosty temperatures.

An Oxbow Farmer Educator helps students find and sample tomatoes growing in a high tunnel during their fall fieldtrip, catching the tail end of the growing season on the Oxbow Kids’ Farm. Photo credit: 2016 Jess Eskelsen

Building on the relationships forged through the fall, winter was a time to begin channeling student’s excitement toward specific learning targets, helping them dig deeper into their wonderments and explore the systems connecting us to one another, and the greater planet we’re all a part of. With now-established routines and a classroom culture helping kids adhere to behavior expectations, students were ready to build on the basics and learn how to ask specific questions, make and share their observations, and consider new concepts. The weather during the winter months kept most of our lessons in the classroom, but certainly didn’t keep the kids from hands-on learning opportunities and ongoing nature connections!

Since things are a bit too muddy at Oxbow in the winter, we brought the farm into the classroom in the form of real live wiggling worms, giving students a chance to gently interact with the creatures as they sorted through the contents of their habitat during the Soil Sorting Activity. Students also identified what components serve as food and shelter for the decomposers to come up with a definition of what “soil is” and then used their observations to design and build a small composting chamber for the classroom. The teachers took this introductory lesson and built on it throughout the winter to address other parts of their curricula and learning targets: helping their students develop fine motor skills by cutting pictures out of seed catalogues and newspaper ads, then sorting the foods into those which worms can eat and those they cannot, and finally gluing their colorful collages onto posters and practicing writing the names of the foods in both English and Spanish. Further exploring habitats and plant and animal needs, we followed student curiosity into the schoolyard to investigate if the schoolyard is a healthy habitat for squirrels and learned how Squirrels and Trees help meet each other’s needs.

The Snoqualmie River flowing past Oxbow joins with the Skykomish River right near Frank Wagner to form the Snohomish River, a perfect natural connection to frame an investigation! As winter transitioned into (a still wet) spring, a Watersheds lesson helped to reinforce the link between farm and school, giving students a chance to work with maps of the actual landscape to trace the route of a raindrop as it would flow down from mountaintops and through interconnected rivers, and illustrate many human and natural features that use and depend on this water.


A kindergarten student carefully draws in her science notebook, documenting a specific apple tree she observed in the orchard. Photo credit: 2017 Jess Eskelsen


Early-season native pollinators like blue orchard mason bees are a Farmer Educator’s best friend. Not only do these cute little insects help flowers turn to fruits and seeds, but they do so in a kid-friendly manner, hatching from hardy cocoons into adults friendly enough to hold without fear of a sting! With the warmer weather, students were able to spend more time outdoors exploring nature around the schoolyard and came back out to Oxbow to see how the big pumpkins they harvested back in the fall get their start as tiny seeds in the cozy greenhouse. With spring’s official arrival, the time had come for all that fall fertilizing and deep-winter pondering to transition into a growing, independent entity—be it a seedling or an excited student!

Springtime is a season full of vigorous growth and the kindergarteners were practically bursting to share with us all they’d been learning about through the winter. The students were ready to dynamically explore and understand the many connections between their lives, the farmers, and the plants and animals they saw popping up from the warming soils. Lessons in the springtime harnessed this energy by playing active games during multiple field trips to the farm and further investigating the nature around the schoolyard, all with a focus on connecting students more intimately with their sense of place.

Through an early spring field trip focused on Animals in the Water, students participated in a macroinvertebrate study, closely examining the “little bugs” that rely on cool, toxin-free water in the oxbow lake, and played games embodying the flow of nutrients through the freshwater food web these bugs are an integral part of. Their Spring Farm Adventure field trip and Orchard Stations had a focus on lifecycles and natural processes they could observe firsthand: how the buds on the orchard trees would soon (with a little help from the farmers, sunny and wet weather, and pollinators) become summer’s sweet fruits, and how the growing season for most food crops in this region is really just beginning as their school year comes to an end. As an end-line assessment of the student’s change in environmental understanding, we asked the students to again “draw a picture of nature” and were impressed to see the concepts of life cycles, interdependence of organisms, habitat needs, and where food comes from recalled and illustrated so eagerly by the students.

Our Tree

Behind every future environmental steward there is a spark of wonder which must be fanned to a flame, often with the support of dedicated educators and an array of tried and tested strategies. The Foundation of the tree includes a selection of Best Practices, which are continually growing. These ideas and strategies are intended to prepare students for outdoor science learning and provide teachers with the tools and skills to feel confident teaching in the outdoors.

Of course, none of the curricular branches would be strong without the solid structure of the trunk and roots. Building strong relationships with the teachers, school district, and other nonprofit partners throughout the project was integral to understanding the specific needs of the kindergarten classes and how informal educators can best support their in-class learning. We look forward to continuing to work with the students through this spring and beyond as we help build a school garden on their campus, giving students of every grade more opportunities to discover the magic of growing plants, harvesting food, and caring for worms and native wildlife. Our Earth Connections compendium will continue to be populated with additional resources and we hope to hear from educators like you about how you’ve used the materials, your recommendations for improvement, or ideas for expansion!

We are thrilled to share the fruits of this partnership with fellow educators and hope you find inspiration to continue exploring and learning from nature, both inside the classroom and around the schoolyard, maybe even taking a field trip to a local farm or community garden! You can learn more about Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center at


About the author:

Shea Scribner is an Environmental Education Specialist and Summer Camp Director at Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center in Carnation, WA.

Embracing the Unfamiliar Through Adventurous Eating with an Equity Lens

Embracing the Unfamiliar Through Adventurous Eating with an Equity Lens

Embracing the Unfamiliar Through Adventurous Eating with an Equity Lens

By Caroline Bargo

Adventure Awaits

As I began exploring the IslandWood campus in August it became abundantly clear that the garden would be one of my favorite places here on the 255-acres available to us to teach. As a graduate student at IslandWood’s Education for Environment and Community program I act as field instructor to groups of students that visit during the School Overnight Program. Although I knew I loved the garden, I fall more deeply in love each week when I am teaching in it and surrounded by delighted children. Sometimes these students are familiar with garden classrooms, and sometimes this is their first exposure to one. Some students come in having tried all sorts of obscure veggies, and some are still skeptical. Regardless of student’s comfort levels walking into the space, it is my goal that each student who visits feels a connection to the soil, decomposers, fruits, veggies and herbs that are growing in the garden.

This year, I have been focused on stewarding my students through exciting and sometimes scary activities. We have climbed a ten-story canopy tower, crossed a suspension bridge and hiked through the forest in the dark of night. I realized after a while, though, that these adventures weren’t replicable in everyday life. One thing that students can do to push their boundaries is to try foods that aren’t familiar to them. Here at IslandWood we have the capacity to grow a unique variety of fruits and veggies, and students are often motivated to try them in the jovial team atmosphere that we foster.

Many Histories & a Delicious Meal

During my first week teaching at the IslandWood School Overnight Program I decided to give my students a feeling of place on Bainbridge Island in both in location and in time. We went through a lesson called “Histories Mysteries,” which places students at IslandWood and poses the question, “What happened here on Bainbridge Island before our field group got here?” We traveled up and down the IslandWood campus, visiting a relief map of the area, the harbor where an old mill boomed during the early 1900’s logging era, and a cemetery where generations of Islanders are interred.

We specifically took interest in the idea of the multiple histories that call the island home; we examined those of the Suquamish tribe who inhabit the land, the multitude of immigrant groups who made their home near the mill, the Japanese-American farmers who lovingly tended the land until their Internment, those who stewarded the land until their return and still today. After our initial day of trekking through history, we came back and watched a video of what the Island’s population looked like and how it has changed over the last hundred years.

The next day we visited the IslandWood garden and participated in a Soil to Snack lesson in which Chef Garreth from the IslandWood kitchen led the group in creating a meal to share. In the spirit of celebrating the history of Bainbridge Island we decided to make veggie sushi, sourced almost entirely from garden vegetables and herbs. Students cooked rice, chopped vegetables, handcrafted wasabi with horseradish grown in the garden, rolled their sushi out on their own and washed the meal down with IslandWood grown herbal tea. As we sat down to our meal, I asked the students to share the significance of the meal. They were eager to share with our chef what it meant to eat sushi on this land. Several students connected the fact that Japanese Americans tended this land until their forcible removal in 1942 and upon their return in 1945.

I aimed to incorporate culturally responsive teaching methods into this activity by having students investigate the people that call Bainbridge Island home, the history of their relationships with the land, and partake in appreciating a recipe from just one of those many cultures. The sharing of stories of our own favorite meals from our communities added yet another layer of responsiveness. I was pleased to learn that many of my students had never eaten sushi, much less made it with their own hands.

From Seed to Cookie

            Even a familiar delicacy can be made with adventurous ingredients, making it an entirely new experience. My second week of teaching at IslandWood’s SOP I decided to introduce producers and consumers in a unique way. First, we started sorting quinoa grown in the garden, separating seed from hull. This provided a tactile activity for students to absorb themselves in. During the activity, we discussed the origins of the quinoa plant; it grows high in the Andes mountains, has huge cultural significance for many indigenous people in the area, and is often called the “mother of all grains.” Afterward, we ate a chocolate chip cookie made with the beloved grain.

As students enjoyed their cookies, we brainstormed what ingredients went into making them. Students shared experiences of making cookies with family members, and they certainly came in with plenty to share. I was so impressed as my students rattled off all of the different ways they had made cookies in the past. I aimed to engage in culturally responsive teaching methods by sharing the story of quinoa’s importance to Andean culture and asking students to share stories of their own cookie making. This quarter one of my goals has been to consider students lived experiences when using a tool some would think of as a “common” recipe, like a cookie. Students were able to share variations of recipes that were particular to their families and cultures. We listed ingredients on a whiteboard, and when we felt satisfied that we had all of our them down, we divided ingredients into categories that the students designed. One category was plants and the other animal. We talked about where the ingredients come from, how they grow and how they are eaten by creatures to make a new product. We decided that many of our ingredients like the quinoa, sugar and vanilla came from plants. Eggs, milk and butter came from animals that had to eat plants to get their energy; they couldn’t make any of their own. This nicely scaffolded the idea of producers and consumers, and how energy comes initially from the sun and is translated into usable form for life by plants. Students left with an understanding of the beginnings of the cookies they were eating, and of the food they will encounter in the future.


Students Deserve Healthy Food

Students who visit IslandWood may not have the opportunity to try new foods often. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that, “23.5 million people lack access to a supermarket within a mile of their home.”(Treuhaft & Karpyn, 2010). A similar study done in multiple states found that low-income census tracts had half as many supermarkets as wealthy tracts, and another found that eight percent of African Americans live in a tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites. (Treuhaft & Karpyn, 2010). By design, IslandWood attracts quite a diverse set of students, and while some certainly have access to supermarkets within walking distance of home, many do not. These areas in which no accessible grocery store is available are called “food deserts.” According to Teaching Tolerance, a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center, because access is limited, residents of food deserts may rely more heavily on convenience stores and fast food restaurants. In general, these convenient places to get a quick meal don’t offer the variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, whole grains and lean meats that make up a balanced diet. (Teaching Tolerance, n.d.). Students may not be presented with options in their everyday lives, but we can use our resources here at IslandWood to expose them to the idea of choice when it comes to food. When we show them that apples are delicious right off the tree, that flowers can be edible, and that sushi isn’t just something that people eat in movies we give students agency to make those choices when the circumstance arises.

“A 2017 evaluation of FoodCorps conducted by the Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University found that in schools that provide frequent, high-quality opportunities for hands-on nutrition learning, students eat up to three times more fruits and vegetables at school lunch — regardless of whether or not that food was grown in the garden.” (Shafer, 2018). Dinner at IslandWood is always vegetarian; meals are packed full of greens, whole grains and plant-based proteins. Not all of the ingredients come from the garden here at IslandWood, but many are sourced from local farms. Again the idea of recency prevails. As researched by the Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy – when students have an opportunity to see where food is grown and understand the energy transfer through the sun to their bodies they are more likely to try new foods when presented with them. (Shafer, 2018).

Brain Food

The effect of adding a new food to a student’s repertoire may foster neural plasticity, or the ability to create new connections between neurons in the brain. These new connections are useful to all types of learning, not just about food and not just environmental education. In a study conducted by London’s Global University, participants were asked to study and recall both new and old information. Subjects were far more capable of recalling new information than the old, which was a surprise to researchers. The study concludes with a quote from Dr. Düzel, “When we see something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way. This potential that lies in new things motivates us to explore our environment for rewards… For this reason, only completely new objects activate the midbrain area and increase our levels of dopamine.” (“Novelty aids learning,” 2006). This research begs implementation with new foods. If students are exposed to new foods, their brains are quite literally open to new possibilities; we can not only use these new neural connections to show them that foods can be exciting, but to incorporate other concepts of science.

Taking Adventure Home

Students may not be presented with many opportunities to choose their own foods. In a world where many students eat two to three meals at school each day, the idea of food choice may not be a reality. I would argue that situations such as this are the best time in which to incorporate adventurous eating like we do at IslandWood. Students who have tasted the variety of produce available here at IslandWood leave our campus feeling empowered to try new things, and to advocate for their incorporation into their everyday school meals. Trying these new foods can trigger our learner’s brains to be more receptive to new ideas and use those same adventure muscles as climbing the canopy tower or crossing the suspension bridge.


Caroline is a graduate student at the Education for Environment and Community program at IslandWood in partnership with the University of Washington. All photographs were taken by the author.





Bargo, Caroline. (photograph). (2018). IslandWood. Bainbridge Island, WA.

Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy. (2017). FoodCorps: Creating Healthy School Environments: Evaluation January 2015 to December 2016. New York, New York. Retrieved from

London’s Global University. (2006, August 2). Novelty Aids Learning. Retrieved from

Shafer, L. (2018, July 31). Let It Grow. Usable Knowledge. Retrieved from

Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Food Desert Statistics. Retrieved from

Treuhaft, S. & Karpyn, A. PolicyLink & The Food Trust. (2010). The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters. Retrieved from


Gardens Grow Minds: The School as Green Educator

Gardens Grow Minds: The School as Green Educator


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

Gardens Grow Minds: The School as Green Educator

by Mary Quattlebaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources for Starting and Learning from a School Garden

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

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



The Urban-Rural Exchange Bridges Oregon’s Greatest Divide

The Urban-Rural Exchange Bridges Oregon’s Greatest Divide

The Urban-Rural Exchange Bridges Oregon’s Greatest Divide

By Judy Scott
From Oregon’s Agricultural Progress


Wallowa County in northeast Oregon was the destination for one of this year’s four exchanges. The young guests from the city arrived in the thick of calving season, a dynamic leap into ranch life. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Six lanes of Portland traffic filled the rear-view mirror as the van headed east on I-84. On the left, the Columbia flowed through its gorge below giant windmills scattered like toys, turning with the breezes. After a few hours, sagebrush took the place of Douglas-fir and fern.

The riders from Portland’s Sunnyside Environmental School had reason to be nervous as they watched the familiar give way to the unknown. And it wasn’t just the landscape that would change.

The 15 middle-school students were already immersed in a life-broadening experience: the 4-H Urban-Rural Exchange program, sponsored by Oregon State University Extension Service. For five years, host families from Grant, Klamath, and Wallowa counties have opened their homes and lives (sometimes nervously) to city kids. In turn, Multnomah County families introduce rural students to life in Portland.

Wallowa County in northeast Oregon was the destination for one of this year’s four exchanges. The young guests from the city arrived in the thick of calving season, a dynamic leap into ranch life.


The Portland students (above) weren’t sure what to expect when they arrived in Wallowa County to stay with rancher Charley Phillips and his wife Ramona. Soon, the students were pitching in to help with all the chores, including branding calves at the Birkmaier ranch (below). Photos by Lynn Ketchum.


Deep in the Wallowa Mountains, hosts Tom and Kelly Birkmaier and a crew of friends rounded up 65 calves for branding. While unhappy mother cows bawled in the distance, the job was to brand, inoculate, and ear-tag the calves as quickly as possible while muscling them securely into a metal chute.

This was no spectator sport for Portland middle-schoolers Zoe O’Toole and Birch Clark. Although reticent at first (“I’m not really sure how I feel about branding,” Zoe had confided earlier), the girls gamely took turns with both the branding iron and the syringe.

Down in the valley at another host home, a cow notched up her tail, and three other city students learned what that meant: the cow was ready to give birth. Lanie Novick and her middle-school colleagues watched in awe as the calf dropped from its mother’s womb while Lanie documented the event on her cell phone. Ramona and Charley Phillips, who hosted the girls at their ranch near Joseph, were impressed with the students’ enthusiasm and unending questions as they collected eggs each morning and tossed baled hay from the back of a truck to a “sea of cows.”

Calving season knows no time clock. After midnight, the girls bumped along with the Phillipses in their pickup truck, scanning the range with spotlights in search of cows with newborns. The girls learned that if they spotted cows bawling and bunched up around their calves, there might be predators such as cougars or wolves stalking nearby.


Seventh grader Lanie Novick (above) displays a memorable snapshot of her Sunnyside classmate Julia Glancy holding a newborn lamb. The learning experience includes classroom time at the Imnaha School (below), where five local students make up the total K-8 enrollment. Photos by Lynn Ketchum.

Part of each exchange includes spending a day at the host school. Portland students Morgaen Schall and Joseph Unfred swelled enrollment of the one-room schoolhouse in Imnaha by 40 percent on the day they went to class with the school’s five local students.

Morgaen and Joseph both love working with horses in Portland but prefer being “in the middle of nowhere.” Their stay was not romantic—mending fences seldom is—but they enjoyed the outdoor work, and to show their appreciation, the two boys made a special Sunday breakfast for their hosts, Cynthia and Dan Warnock and their three sons.

More than half of the urban-rural exchange students have kept in touch with their host families. Sometimes during the summer they cross back over the cultural divide to reunite with their hosts and to share the experience with their parents. The exchange expands when parents get involved. Thirty families in Portland now buy beef directly from a host rancher as part of a new beef cooperative, an idea that grew from the young people’s exchange.


Back on the ranch (above), feeding time is fun for students and cows. In Portland, students used mass transit to navigate the city (below). Photos by Lynn Ketchum.

“The basic mission of 4-H is education for youth,” said Jed Smith, a 4-H faculty member at the Extension office in Klamath Falls. “But 4-H also involves parents in Extension education. When you get young people in the conversation, you’ve got a good start towards better understanding between remote rural Oregon and the rest of the state.” Smith wants his urban visitors to experience first-hand the life of rural ranchers and farmers. “They see that ranch families are good with animal husbandry, they’re responsible stewards of the land, but they face different challenges than urban families,” he said.

One of those challenges is the reintroduction of wolves, which sparked the creation of the urban-rural exchange. In 2005, after Sunnyside students completed a class project on how westward U.S. settlement affected wildlife, the students gave testimony at a state Fish and Wildlife Commission hearing in favor of reintroducing wolves. The urban students didn’t expect that their opinions would spark controversy in rural Oregon, where ranchers bemoaned that city dwellers didn’t understand rural life. To foster better understanding across the state, OSU 4-H and Sunnyside joined forces to create the first Urban-Rural Exchange in 2006.


Students from Klamath County get a tram’s-eye-view of Portland (above) while Hot Lips pizza shows off their spin cycle (below). Photos by Lynn Ketchum.


Everyone involved that first year, from both sides of the Cascades, ventured into unfamiliar territory. At least one rancher would have pulled out at the last minute if the city kids were not already on their way. However, at the end of five days of sharing chores and meals together, both students and families described the exchange as one of the best experiences of their lives.

Each year, some of the city students come home thinking that farming and ranching would be professions they’d like to pursue. “We want them to learn about the care of natural resources from a rural perspective,” said Maureen Hosty, the OSU 4-H Extension faculty member who coordinates the exchange. “Sometimes they take it to a personal level. They want to live there.”

Fewer rural students visiting Portland express a strong desire to relocate to the city. Perhaps city living is an acquired taste. Dylan Denton and Trevor Wentz, both from Wallowa County, enjoyed their day exploring mass transit and gliding over the skyline by tram. But considering that a square mile in Portland is home to 3,939 people, and in Wallowa County, it’s home to 2, they had to conclude, “There are too many people!” Nevertheless, according to their host family mom, Dylan and Trevor readily took to “a crash course” in riding bicycles in city traffic, even while pedaling in cowboy boots.


The bustle of city life contrasts with the quiet of dinner time after a long day’s work on the ranch. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Portland hosts helped their rural visitors understand sustainable urban living. They climbed to the top of city buildings to see rooftop landscapes that temper winter stormwater and summer heat. They visited the city’s massive recycling system. And they walked through one of Portland’s 20 farmers markets, where they ran into a potato vendor from faraway Wallowa County.

More city kids have made the exchange than their rural counterparts, and Hosty encourages more students from rural Oregon to visit Portland. “We want to build a strong bridge of understanding that goes both ways,” she said. The bustle of city life contrasts with the quiet of dinner time after a long day’s work on the ranch.

“We have a lot more in common than we realize,” Hosty said. “But if we don’t spend some time walking in each other’s shoes, then misunderstandings will continue to divide our state.” The 4-H Urban-Rural Exchange can make a difference. “Kids are leading the way and are willing to spend some time to learn. And the real learning happens in family homes at the dinner table.”

Catlin Gabel School—a Focus on Food

Catlin Gabel School—a Focus on Food

By Eric Shawn

The interdisciplinary study of food has emerged as a theme in sustainability education at Catlin Gabel School, an independent, co-educational school with 725 students in preschool through 12th grade in Portland, Oregon. The focus on food—a necessity for human life, and a subject of much recent thinking worldwide in terms of sustainability—touches many disciplines across the school and touches our learners from age 4 to 18. (more…)