An Interview with Ryan Monger
Winner of 2015 EPA Presidential Award for Innovation in Environmental Education
Ryan Monger, Sultan High School
Ryan Monger, an environmental education teacher of students in grades 9 through 12 at Sultan High School in Sultan, Washington, uses this small, rural community as an outdoor classroom to encourage his students to explore science and learn about the local ecosystem. Students in Ryan’s classes participate in hands-on projects, including maintaining a salmon hatchery on the school’s grounds and releasing the fish into a local stream, surveying bacteria living on common surfaces such as those in the school’s weight room and on students’ cell phones, tapping maple trees at the school to make maple syrup, identifying trees and growing edible plants in the school greenhouse using environmentally sustainable, small-scale farming practices. Ryan’s students also participate in community-based projects, including environmental restoration projects to mitigate the impact of clear-cutting and the runoff of pollutants, and conducting an ongoing salmon study.
Ryan’s efforts to educate his students about the importance of environmental stewardship has garnered a great deal of support from the community. Local nurseries, hardware stores and seed companies donate supplies for the projects, and his students received recognition for their hard work when a local newspaper wrote a cover story on his unique curriculum. Students in his class are also working to integrate environmental education into the district’s preschool curriculum by involving preschoolers with the salmon hatchery project.
CLEARING: Tell us a little bit about yourself… how did you get started in environmental education?
Ryan Monger: I used to teach a pretty standard science curriculum, which was fun: explosions in chemistry and lasers in physics. However, when I got the job at Sultan, it was just Biology and there was not much money for fancy equipment. What we did have was a nearby river, a greenhouse, open fields, a salmon hatchery and a wonderful forest with trails behind the school. More than anything else, I was just taking advantage of the resources that I had.
CLEARING: Do you recall anything from your childhood growing up (vacations, time in the woods, etc.) that may have played a role in your becoming an environmental educator?
RM: When I was growing up I lived in the suburbs of Bellevue, but there happened to be a few acres of woods right next to our suburban home. I used to walk in those woods every day and I think they made a pretty profound impression on me. I loved catching frogs and salamanders, collecting plants, climbing trees and looking at forest flowers. Ever since, I have felt more at home and at peace in the woods than anywhere else. When I was about 10 the woods were developed into more suburban housing and I can remember feeling very angry and hopeless about this. I suppose I have wanted to do whatever I could to help the forest since that day.
CLEARING: Were you inspired or influenced by anybody in particular or anything you read or saw?
RM: I have been and always will be inspired by the natural world. I have never been into fantasy or science fiction because I always thought the real world was good enough for me.
CLEARING: How long have you been in the classroom?
RM: About nine years. I taught 4 years in England, 1.5 years on the Tulalip Indian Reservation and I have been at Sultan for almost 4 years now.
CLEARING: Talk about the inquiry and community-based projects that earned you the Presidential Award for Innovation.
RM: I think that I received the award for my work in helping to run our school’s salmon hatchery, starting gardens on school grounds, and doing habitat restoration in our forest. The hatchery could not have been successful without the help and guidance of community member Don Foltz. I have also received lots of help from Kelli Mack of Everett Steelhead and Salmon club, Trevor Jenison of the Wallace Falls State Hatchery, and our librarian Conan has helped tremendously by maintaining the trails in our forest. The district has also been helpful in their willingness to maintain the hatchery and our administration has given me the freedom to teach how I feel is right. Our students are also incredible people: helpful, humble, intelligent, and enthusiastic. I could not have done any of these projects successfully without their help.
CLEARING: What do you find most rewarding about inquiry-based learning?
RM: I love watching students figure out problems on their own. I feel like learning to problem solve is far more important than memorizing scientific facts and vocabulary. The only way that I have ever learned in my life is by trying things for myself, so I am trying to give my students that same experience. It is both more enjoyable for me and for them when they get to explore the world around them on their own terms.
CLEARING: Are there any resources (books, curriculum, community-based) that you use that you have found particularly valuable?
RM: I have found the river and the forest to be particularly valuable. They are ever changing and are full of teaching resources. I learn more in one minute in the forest than I could over a lifetime of studying pre-prescribed curriculum. In just the last few weeks, we have seen an owl, a hawk, deer and deer tracks, nursery logs, a forest floor golden with cottonwood leaves, salmon spawning, and the most beautiful mushrooms on earth. What more could you ask for?
CLEARING: What has been the response to your program from parents and the community?
RM: Overwhelmingly positive. As far as I can tell, most (if not all) students love learning outside, even in bad weather. I have received nothing but positive comments from parents and lots of help from people in the community, particularly those listed above. My most important community asset by far has been the help of my students. They have all shown interest and I have had many helpful TA’s. Of particular help have been students who were in the running start program, but have chosen to come back and to help. Jazmen Griggs, Liam McDonell, Olivia Gasselsdorfer, Logan Berti, and Josh Morehead have a spent countless hours helping me in the classroom when they did not have to be there. I would have been lost without them.
CLEARING: Have you been able to expand your program?
RM: Yes I have. We continue to restore habitat in the woods, garden, collect mushrooms, and run the salmon hatchery. Every year, we spend more time outside. I am currently applying for grants to build an outdoor classroom and take students to visit old-growth forest.
CLEARING: Can you share a particularly memorable moment from your student projects over the past couple of years?
RM: I love walking through the forest with them. They have taught me so much about life and how to appreciate it. I love kneeling before a tree or a mushroom and admiring them together.
CLEARING: What keeps you motivated to do the work that you do?
RM: The enthusiasm of the students and the serenity of the forest.
CLEARING: Who are your environmental heroes?
RM: Salmon, cedar trees, huckleberry bushes, douglas firs, big leaf maples, black bears, bald eagles, and beavers. Anyone who has done anything to help educate about or preserve our local forests.
CLEARING: What book(s) are you currently reading?
RM: ‘Salmon’ by Peter Coates and ‘The Final Forest’ by William Dietrich.
CLEARING: Do you have any advise for young teachers just getting started?
RM: Do what you feel is right and make sure your primary feedback comes from the students and the look in their eyes. This will tell you more about your teaching successes than a whole mountain of data will. Also, treat the students with respect and they will do the same to you.
CLEARING: Any final thoughts that you’d like to share?
RM: I love teaching about the forest and the river. I hope to be able to do it until the day that I die.
CLEARING: Thank you so much for your time, and best wishes for your continued success!
Environmental Education: The Science of Learning and Doing
by Cecelia Bosma
Trinity Lutheran School
e live on a planet with limited resources that are often consumed without caution. Finding ways to engage students in pro-environmental behaviors that conserve these limited resources rather than take them for granted is a priority for environmental educators. The human population also needs to work on understanding the benefits and risks we take with our daily behavior. Conserving the use of paper towels at home and in public is one easy pro-environmental behavior that will have a positive impact on the environment. Paper towels do not just use up trees, they also require large amount of water for production and they end up in landfills which generates pollution as they slowly decompose. However there are numerous alternatives to using paper towels at home and at school. These alternatives are efficient effective and financially thrifty. Often times conservation practices are rejected because they are time consuming and or costly. Alternatives to paper towels are neither. The financial benefit is an incentive for people that don’t relate to the environmental impact of using paper towels.
Last fall, I designed a project to engage my eighth grade science class in a meaningful scientific inquiry project that assisted in deepening students’ understanding of the importance of conservation action through environmental education. The project action focused on eliminating paper towels in school bathrooms. There are many environmental benefits to reducing the amount of paper towels manufactured. One benefit is the reduction of trash in landfills because generally bathroom paper towels cannot be recycled. Another benefit is the reduction of chemicals leaching back into our soil from decomposing paper towels. This in turn saves trees from being processed into paper towels. Environmental benefits are also found in the amount of water consumed in the manufacturing of paper towels, and the reduced amount of fuel burned transporting paper towels.
Getting started on an inquiry project that is focused on building environmental knowledge through conservation action on the school campus can be a challenge. I have been working middle school students on various inquiry projects to build environmental knowledge for several years. Each time I start a project I am learning right along with my students. This project was no exception. Sharing ideas about inquiry and lessons that motivate students to learn and build knowledge is how we as teachers can help each other build stronger lesson plans that benefit our students and communities.
Educating adolescents about the impact they have on their environment is necessary for nurturing lifelong environmental stewardship (Nancy & Kristi, 2006). In the last twenty years, environmental education has been gaining a stronger foothold in classrooms across America (Stevenson, Peterson, Bondell, Mertig, & Moore, 2013). The purpose of environmental education is to teach students how to make responsible decisions, using critical thinking in order to take action to maintain or improve our environment (Short, 2010). Educators should encourage even small steps toward environmental conservation, as they are building blocks to lifetime environmental conservation action (Short, 2010). Accordingly, the primary goal of environmental education is to instill knowledge that leads to pro-environmental actions and behaviors for individuals, groups and society (Heimlich, 2010). I have found that engaging the learners in hands on actionable learning has a positive effect on the outcome of environmental education.
The burgeoning population of planet Earth has brought about observable changes in the environment both in populated and unpopulated regions of the world (Short, 2010). Scientists have observed these drastic changes in the form of melting ice caps, ozone depletion, deforestation and global warming, all of which can be attributed to human actions (Tidball & Krasny, 2010). Therefore, it is society’s responsibility to take action to improve the current environmental status that threatens the very existence of humans (Stevenson et al., 2013).
Additionally, it is important to incorporate positive actions into environmental education (Tidball & Krasny, 2010). Instead of focusing on what is wrong with our environment. Students are motivated by positive changes that help our environment such as recycling. Inquiry style learning is one way to incorporate positive action. Increasing environmental knowledge is a crucial part of environmental education (Grodzińska-Jurczak, Bartosiewicz, Twardowska, & Ballantyne, 2003). This project incorporated the inquiry process into the environmental education program. The students construct their learning by observing, asking questions and problem solving (Crawford, 2000). The inquiry process is a way for students to do science like a real scientist. Educating school children about environmental concerns now will promote action in the future (Evans et al., 1996).
A class of twelve eighth grade students took part in the paper towel conservation inquiry project. The project began with students watching the video that inspired me “How to use a paper towel” (Smith, 2012). Upon completion of the video, students were asked what they thought of the video and if they thought there were other ways that we could conserve paper towels in the bathrooms on our campus. Following the video students took a trip to the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms nearest to our classroom. Science class is at the end of the day, and students observed the piles of used paper towels in the garbage and on the ground.
They were challenged to develop a plan for measuring the volume of paper towels that were used daily for a week. Students worked in pairs to identify a plan which was presented the next day in class. Students then voted on the plan they thought would work the best and took steps to put it into action. One students brought in a scale from home and others created a data sheet for recording the measurements taken daily of the weight of paper towels used in each bathroom.
Table 1 Paper towel weight chart created by students
Table 2 Financial comparison of paper towels versus hand dryers created by students
The students tracked the amount, in pounds, of paper towels used in the 3 sets of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms for 5 days. This data was calculated and graphed to demonstrate the amount of paper towels that our school is disposing into the landfill each day. A total of 288 pounds of paper towels are thrown in the trash each week from the collective school bathrooms (figure 1). Students contacted the person on staff who handles the ordering of paper towels to determine that the school spends about $350.00 on paper towels each month. This information was tabulated into the final graph that compared the expense of paper towels versus the expense hand dryers (figure 2). The graph shown in figure 1 and 2 were developed by students; while it could be perfected it is meant to demonstrate the capabilities of middle school students. Upon completing the charts students noticed that the older students used considerably more paper towels than younger students did.
Students brainstormed alternative ideas to using paper towels. They researched hand dryers, cotton towel dispensers and looked at the practicality of using personal towels. After researching each option, they used the data they collected on alternatives to paper towels to create a presentation to share with fellow students, parents and the church board who has a strong influence on decision making changes. The conclusion of the study resulted in the student recommending the installation of new efficient hand dryers that dry hands in 12 seconds or less. As the students pointed out in their presentation the machines are also designed to kill germs in the air and on the skin (Gagnon, 2007).
The presentation was videotaped and posted on the school website. Posting the video required getting permission from all of the parents. This was worthwhile effort because the students were then able to share what they had learned accomplished and produced with their own community of friends and neighbors. This made it possible to spread the idea of replacing paper towels with hand dryers to the larger community outside of our school.
The final piece of this project was to present a written proposal to the Board of Directors for consideration. Students were given the task and some guidelines and they had to collaborate and compromise to develop a well written proposal that included their research and data results. The objective of the assignment was to persuade the board to approve the installation of hand dryers in the bathroom. The proposal was completed and presented, and is now being considered for implementation.
Action and Reflection
The benefit of inquiry learning is that it provides a method for gaining deeper knowledge about a subject, in this case environmental education, and it also builds students skills in problem solving and analysis. This project provided students the opportunity to conduct science like a scientist. They observed and questioned. Then they looked for alternatives, conducted research, devised an action plan and carried out an investigation. The final part of the project included compiling their findings and presenting to decision makers. Encouraging and guiding students to learn about their environment and then to take action is taken to authentic level when it involves real and actionable projects. It is my hope that the board finds merit in the study and takes the necessary steps to change to electric hand dryers. This action will mitigate the burden, the use of paper towels, puts on our environment.
I know that this project was beneficial in bolstering students’ knowledge of environmental issues. Throughout the project students took ownership of each step and worked diligently to complete the work. The following are several comments from students at the end of the project.
“I liked being able to go outside for science.”
“I hope that hand dryers are installed in the bathrooms”
“I worked really hard on this project because it might be good for our school”
This paper towel action-centered conservation project works to build students conservation and knowledge that works to promote continued conservation action (Stevenson et al., 2013). Schools are looking for ways to keep the material fresh and relevant for the students incorporating inquiry science works towards that goal. We have a planet with limited resources, and an economic system that often ignores that fact. As time goes by the need for action is even more crucial for the survival of all of us. Paper towel reduction is one idea that students can be engaged in environmental education. We have to find ways for students to not only learn about importance of caring for our environment but that knowledge must lead to continued environmental action for the objective to be met.
As a teacher, focusing on improving techniques to guide inquiry learning, leads to discovering ways to make projects authentic and real. Utilizing inquiry in environmental education provides students an enriching learning environment. This is my story of a journey to use inquiry as a catalyst for environmental change. Embrace your story.
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