Students of All Ages Help Pollinators Thrive

Pollinators play an important role in the production of the food we eat, the health of flowering plants we love to admire, and so much more!

With reports of declining numbers and health of pollinators, it’s important to teach students the impact pollinators have on our lives. One way to do this is to support the creation and revitalization of habitat where pollinators of all sizes can thrive.

Every year, Project Learning Tree awards GreenWorks! grants for environmental service-learning projects, such as creating school gardens and natural habitat for pollinators. 

In 2011, Project Learning Tree, with support from the U.S. Forest Service and the Prince William Network, awarded 28 PLT GreenWorks! grants to schools and community programs in 20 states.  The grants enabled students to create gardens and new habitats for pollinators as part of the PollinatorLIVE: A Distance Learning Adventure program.

Here are three noteworthy projects from around the country:

Elementary Students in Virginia: A Village of Pollen

Village Montessori School in Bluemont, VA, involved elementary students, teachers, and parent volunteers in creating a “Village of Pollen.”

Their garden is made of three sections: meadow, woodland, and pond-side. Students researched, planned, and created this breathtaking addition to their outdoor classroom and found native plants that were appropriate for each area of their garden.

“The rains came, the sun shone, and a new plant grew,” said one student during the school’s garden dedication. Students dressed up as the sun, flowers, butterflies, bumblebees, and gardeners to perform an interpretive skit that they wrote about their garden. 

The project helped bring students, parents, teachers, and community partners together to enhance student learning, support the growth of the school’s outdoor classroom, and create new habitat for native pollinators.


Middle School Students in California: EARTHS Community Garden

Along with their teachers and community members, students at EARTHS Magnet Middle School in Newbury Park, CA, designed, planted and now maintain a community garden with a native plant pollinator labyrinth.

This project provided a great opportunity for inquiry-based and cross-curricular learning.  Students first studied parts of a plant during their classroom units on plants and insects and incorporated activities from PLT’s PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide (for example, Activity #24 Nature Recyclers, Activity #41 How Plants Grow, Activity #64 Looking at Leaves, and Activity #65 Bursting Buds.)  They also learned about weather, soil composition, and Native Americans’ (Chumash Indian) use of native plants.

Having plants available for students to see, touch, and smell increased their understanding of how the Chumash people, as well as pollinators, rely on native plants.  Planting and taking care of these plants increased their sense of environmental stewardship.


High School Students in Minnesota: Land Restoration Project

Bees, butterflies, birds, and other pollinator species can also find new habitat around Wright Technical Center and Wright Learning Center (WTC/WLC) in Buffalo, MN.

Students in grades 6-12 helped restore biodiversity to 5.2 acres of old cropland on their school property by planting native vegetation. They set up an indoor nursery for native species and had 10,000 plants growing in there at one time!  Students also created an outdoor classroom as part of the project that now serves eight cooperative school districts.

“They [students] love the concept that they’re doing something for the environment and they can come back in 10 or 20 years from now and say ‘I had a hand in making this facility’,” said Craig Hagberg, science teacher at WTC/WLC.

Before, this area received regular complaints and was an eyesore in the local community. Now, it’s on its way to becoming an incredible outdoor space and will provide many learning opportunities for students and community members for years to come.


Making Progress

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve and World Wildlife Fund Mexico reported that the number of monarch butterflies migrating from Canada and the U.S. to Mexico increased in 2011. This was good news for the many Project Learning Tree students and teachers who worked hard to create butterfly gardens in their schools and communities as part of MonarchLIVE in 2010

However, the overwintering monarch population has since declined again, reinforcing the need to do more in the U.S. to conserve and restore milkweeds to assure a future for these beautiful butterflies.

We hope that through the efforts of PollinatorLIVE and the many students and community members who are working hard to maintain, improve and create pollinator habitat, we will see improved numbers in the future — not only for monarchs, but for all pollinators.

PollinatorLIVE is a partnership between Project Learning Tree, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Prince William Network. For more information, lesson plans, and resources please visit the PollinatorLIVE website.

The Little Green Schoolhouse That Could

The Willow School in Gladstone, New Jersey, dubs itself “The Little Green Schoolhouse.” That’s because Willow is one of the first schools in the nation to adopt sustainability as an integrated concept. The school’s progressive commitment to sustainability, both on its campus and in its curriculum, earned it a rating by the National Geographic’s “Green Guide” as the nation’s second greenest school several years ago.

A small, independent, coeducational day school, the Willow School is committed to fostering academic excellence, a passion for learning, and the development of an ethical approach to all relationships—including  students’ relationship to the natural world.

The school is ideally suited for exploring, experiencing and learning from nature. The 34-acre campus allows for on-site studies of forests, wetlands, water quality and groundwater systems, and the changes that come with the seasons.

Willow encourages all of its students to work toward making their communities healthier and more just, to appreciate the beauty and wonders of nature, and to relate to their natural environment “as stewards rather than conquerors.” Its academic curriculum is designed to further those goals, and was cited as one of the factors that helped the school become one of the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools in 2012.

Energy Investigation

The school’s barn, a multi-use building, is LEED Platinum-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, and uses 70% less energy than would an identical building constructed to meet minimum code requirements. The Barn generates 37% of its own electricity  using renewable photovoltaic technology. Super-insulated walls and ceilings, high-performance windows, high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, and the maximum use of daylight rather than artificial light help maximize energy savings.

Water Investigation

Reducing water use also is a priority for the school. Collected rainwater is used to flush all toilets, and bathrooms feature low-flow faucets. Drought-resistant landscaping on the school grounds features native trees and plants, and requires no irrigation.

In this environment, it’s no wonder the school’s students are encouraged, from the earliest grades, to play an active role in the conservation curriculum, with the school’s garden and recycling program sharing the spotlight.

School Site Investigation

Every grade has a garden-centered project tied to studies in science, history, and social studies. For example, 2nd graders create a Lenape Garden, growing the ancient “sister” crops of corn, beans and squash.  Fifth-graders use the garden as a point of reference to compare it to the ancient agricultural societies about which they are learning. At the end of the year, 8th graders lead the entire school in a Harvest Soup celebration, inviting the community to share the year’s garden crop.

Waste & Recycling Investigation

In addition to recycling paper, plastic, and other conventional materials, The Willow School takes steps to keep non-recyclable items out of landfills. Kindergarten students collect hundreds of pounds of bottle caps, which corporate partner Aveda melts down to create new product packaging.  Third-graders collect items like spent cell phones, yogurt cups, juice pouches and other non-recyclable items. These are shipped to TerraCycle, which pays a few cents for each item collected, and then upcycles the items into new products.

Proximity to the New Jersey coast also offers environmental learning opportunities. During the year, every student has the opportunity to plant a stalk of beach grass and nurture it in the classroom for several weeks. The plants are used to teach the benefits these grasses bring to the landscape and wildlife of the state’s coastal ecosystem. When the grass plants are hardy enough, students travel to the shore to plant the grasses.

PLT GreenSchools Investigations Benefit an Outdoor Education Center

The Civilian Conservation Corps built what is now Camp Waskowitz more than 70 years ago. True to its conservation history, the outdoor education center is also highly relevant today.

Highline School District has sent students to Camp Waskowitz for outdoor education programs since 1947. Since then, more than 200,000 students have participated in environmental education and team-building programs there.  In addition to the 1,200 sixth-graders from the Highline School District who attend programs at Camp Waskowitz each year, some 1,600 5th and 6th graders from neighboring districts also attend week-long environmental education programs at the school. Waskowitz Outdoor School has been a part of the PLT GreenSchools program since 2009.

The school’s Green Team is composed of eight high school students enrolled in the Waskowitz Environmental Leadership Semester (WELS). These students live in the cabins with the younger students, and serve as role models and mentors who lead the investigations. These students also have created environmental skits that they perform for the 6th grade students that feature Captain Planet, Trashbuster, and other environmental superheroes.

Energy Investigation

Because of the historic nature of its buildings, Camp Waskowitz lost energy through the cracks in doors and window frames that didn’t quite close.  After completing the Energy Investigation, the school’s Green Team recommended weatherstripping to cut down on energy loss. “Weatherstripping has allowed us to reduce our electric consumption by 12%,” reported the school’s director, Roberta McFarland.

Waste and Recycling Investigation

After completing the Waste and Recycling Investigation, students recommended composting the school’s food waste and proposed a recycling program to reduce the amount of trash sent to a landfill. Composting the 70 pounds of food waste the school generates every day has reduced Waskowitz’ garbage pick-up schedule from once a week to once every two weeks. A side benefit: composting converts waste and carbon into great garden soil.

The school also uses TerraCycle to recycle other items.  By using this service, which provides waste-collection programs for hard-to-recycle materials and turns them into affordable green products, Waskowitz Outdoor School has reduced its landfill trash by 288 cubic yards, and saved $2,800 per year in fees.


A School Nature Trail Creates a Pathway to Learning

Interactions with nature and green space have lasting impacts on learning. Kindergarten students at Hillside Elementary School in Niskayuna, New York, put this theory into action when they worked with fifth-graders to complete a nature trail that stretches four-tenths of a mile along the perimeter of their school’s property.

Initially, kindergarten teacher Christine Mathews thought to have her students create a map of a trail as part of their lessons. Mathews, along with fifth-grade teacher Christine O’Reilly and librarian Debbie Urbriaco, wanted to provide outdoor learning opportunities for their students and a walking trail for residents who live near the school property. The idea soon evolved into a collaboration between classrooms, and a more hands-on and involved project that engaged students with their community to build their own trail.

Finding Support

They researched nature trail designs and grant opportunities. One of the grants they applied for, and received, was a Project Learning Tree (PLT) GreenWorks! service-learning grant. As a prerequisite for the grant, Mathews attended a PLT workshop to learn how to use the environment and the outdoors to engage students in learning.

Fifth-graders class joined with the kindergarteners in planning the trail, serving as mentors to their younger counterparts. Together, they designed a logo, created a map and a guide, and researched plants to place along the pathways. A parent volunteer who is a professional landscaper and the school’s head custodian helped the students design the trail. Students, parents, and other volunteers spent several weekends on the project, and about 75 people participated on the final day of work that included planting trees and a butterfly garden.

Celebrating Good Work

When complete, Hillside held a nature trail dedication ceremony to recognize the contributors and celebrate their accomplishment. I was invited to give the keynote address and told the audience that the trail represents a symbol of service, of community, and a dedication to getting students outdoors and getting them to experience everything that nature has to offer. After the formal program, students from the kindergarten and the fifth grade led the rest of the school in walking the trail, and local press covered the event.

The positive connection between nature, education, and community was clear. Throughout the process, the students took skills learned in the classroom and applied them to cooperatively improve their environment. The town’s residents also benefited from working with young people to beautify their surroundings to creating a place for them to also experience nature and learn from the things we can find in our backyards.

Tips for Teachers

student holding hand in circle around treeMathews shared tips for success that extend to many other aspects of school:

  1. Pairing older and younger students provides learning experiences for them both. Even before we wrote grants or had approval for constructing a nature trail, we were committed to establishing a strong relationship with our classes and finding ways for the older children to mentor the younger ones. Based on classroom observation, teachers paired students according to strengths and needs. However, the relationships take time to develop, and doing specific activities together, such as our friendship books, really helps.
  2. To involve other grades or classes, make it as easy for them as possible. For example, provide some funding or suggest specific options they can choose to do, such as the butterfly garden created by the school’s third-graders.
  3. Get support from the principal. Our principal believed in us teachers and in the project. She encouraged us to take risks.
  4. Children learn best by seeing and doing. We organized weekend or after-school hikes to see other nature trails nearby. Parents were involved by bringing their children to the events and stayed to participate. As a community of learners, our students took pictures and recorded their observations to show and discuss what they had seen with those who could not attend.
  5. students dig hole for treeAsk parents for help. Students, their parents and families were invited to participate in the construction day. We organized people into small groups based on the interests they indicated on a RSVP form (laying ground cover, posting signs, planting trees, etc.) and assigned a parent to be “team leader” for each group. In addition to our parent who was a landscaper, another parent was a carpenter who could help with the signage. A parent who could not participate in the construction was more than willing to organize the refreshments.
  6. Teach kids about trade-offs and future action. They could not accomplish all they would have liked, but they learned to prioritize. They are now seeking funding for benches and other features.
  7. Ask local businesses for donations. Many businesses are willing to donate and sometimes all it takes is a letter from your students explaining why their project is worthwhile.



Energy, Recycling, Gardening Projects Green a City High School

A high school courtyard has been turned into a verdant garden with 25 raised garden beds, a small pond, and concrete paths.
A bare courtyard at Wyandotte High School has been transformed into a verdant garden with 25 raised beds, more than 60 species of plants, an automatic watering system, a small pond used to teach water sampling techniques, and concrete paths — all constructed primarily by the students.

High school science teacher Michael Hotz has “been doing green things for years and years and years.” Ever since his school, Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, KS, became a Project Learning Tree GreenSchool, “we’ve been able to do so much more,” he says.

Growing Gardens–At School and Beyond

One of the first things that captured Hotz’ imagination when he came to the school more than a decade ago was its enclosed courtyard, which Wyandotte students have gradually transformed into a thriving garden spot. “Now we have 25 raised beds, more than 60 species of plants, an automatic watering system, a small pond used to teach water sampling techniques, and concrete paths-all constructed primarily by the students. It’s cost-effective labor – and they learn things. It’s amazing how enthusiastic they are,” said Hotz.

Hotz’ students raise vegetables and strawberries, which the students can take home to share with their families. “So many times, the kids don’t know where their food comes from. They’re amazed when they can pick a strawberry and eat it right off the plant,” Hotz said. Because Wyandotte’s student body represents 23 different ethnic groups, the gardens also include plants native to the students’ cultures.

Taking their gardening expertise beyond school grounds, Wyandotte students have worked with community members to transform vacant urban lots in their school’s Kansas City neighborhood into community gardens.

$100K in Energy Savings Help “Save the Teacher”

High school student uses technology to conduct an audit of the school's energy use.
Budget shortfalls and threatened staff cuts added urgency to the Wyandotte Green Team’s search for energy savings. They launched a “Save the Teacher” campaign, hoping to save enough energy to equal a teacher’s salary. By turning off lights and letting natural light stream into classrooms, they more than met their goal, saving the school $100,000.

Because they study in a school building constructed long before energy efficiency was a widespread concern, the PLT GreenSchools Energy Investigation has been the springboard for many money- and energy-saving projects.

“Our students used the information they gathered from the Energy Investigation to launch a ‘Save the Teacher’ Campaign,” Hotz said. “Our school was faced with the threat of staff cuts due to budget shortfalls. The goal of the campaign was to save enough energy to make up the cost of one teacher’s salary.”

“We counted all the lights in the hallways and classrooms,” student Yehimi Robles explained. “We found that classrooms would have the lights on even if the sun was shining. Now, not many classrooms turn on all their lights. I’m glad we were able to make some changes.”

Those changes have made a big difference. Robles continued, “By analyzing energy use and implementing changes – like using the natural light admitted through our old school’s many windows, rather than turning on electric lights in classrooms – we were able to save $100,000, more than enough to meet our ‘Save the Teacher’ goal!”

PLT GreenWorks! Grant Helps Launch Recycling Program

High school students use bins and carts to collect items for recycling from around the school.
A PLT GreenWorks! grant helped the Wyandotte High School Green Team purchase bins and carts to launch a recycling program that now involves the whole school. In one year, students recycled 17,000 pounds of paper, plastic and aluminum — allowing the school to get rid of one of its trash dumpsters.

A PLT GreenWorks! grant helped Wyandotte develop a highly successful school-wide recycling program that spilled over into many students’ homes. The grant helped the school purchase recycling bins to replace the cardboard boxes that had been used to haul recyclables to their pick-up point.

Thanks to better equipment and a solid commitment by everyone in the school, Wyandotte students recycled some 17,000 pounds of paper, plastic and aluminum in one year alone. “And they’re spreading the word at home,” Hotz said.

Hallmark Cards, whose corporate offices are in Kansas City, provided added inspiration. “We had a field trip to Hallmark and got a lot of great ideas from them,” Hotz said. “They have a ‘zero-landfill’ corporate model, and have two individuals who work full-time on their corporate recycling program. It was inspiring to the students to see what’s possible.”

“As much as we can, we’re trying to get the school and community involved in a dialogue about environmental issues that affect us all,” Hotz says. “PLT GreenSchools has helped us do so much.”



Clean Energy for Bright Futures

Bloomfield Vocational Technical School (Bloomfield Tech), a PLT GreenSchool in Bloomfield, New Jersey, is an ideal laboratory for the program’s student-led investigations. 

The school’s Green Team, facilitated by teacher Todd Menadier, has completed all five of the investigations. In the process, they found ways to make their already green school even greener.

Bloomfield Tech is an unusual school, offering a Green Energy Academy as one of four career clusters available to its students.  Green Energy Academy students study the environmental, economic, political, and social impacts of energy usage, and are encouraged to think about alternatives to current energy models. The intensive energy-focused curriculum, combined with a strong academic program that has earned Bloomfield Tech a coveted Blue Ribbon School designation from the U.S. Department of Education, prepares students for careers in the green energy field.

The school’s focus on energy led to innovative—and money-saving—projects, as students completed the PLT GreenSchools Energy Investigation. With help from $8,070 in PLT GreenWorks! grants, students designed and installed systems to monitor temperature, humidity, and energy use in the school’s greenhouse 24 hours a day. They even designed an “app” that turns off grow-lights in the greenhouse remotely from a SmartPhone if the automated monitoring system indicates there’s enough light to meet the growing plants’ needs.

“We have installed systems that give us more data and, as a result, have achieved significant energy savings,” said Menadier. “We installed a 400-watt wind turbine and a 1 kw solar system to provide power for the greenhouse,” where the students raise vegetables for school families and for distribution to needy community members.

Students enrolled in the program have become polished and articulate ambassadors of the PLT GreenSchools program, not only in their community but also to national audiences.  A student team made a presentation at the annual meeting of the  National Youth Leadership Council in Minneapolis. They also were featured presenters in a PLT GreenSchools webinar.

A formal partnership with the local power company, Newark-based PSE&G, means that Green Energy Academy students make regular presentations to company executives and staff. They also have presented their work to the local school board, and to New Jersey staff of the international consulting firm Ernst & Young.

Incorporating PLT GreenSchools in Culturally Diverse Classrooms

Five Latino students show their dirty hands from a vermicomposting project at the Urban Farm in Denver
Escuela students Jonathon, Jocelyn, Rocsana, Elijah and Mica, who are happy to get their hands dirty making soil from worm castings as part of the school’s vermicomposting project.

Back in 1971, the late social activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, saw that the Denver, Colorado, public school system was not responding very well to the needs of Latino children. Corky, who was a visionary leader in Denver’s Latino community, started our community school, Escuela Tlatelolco Centro de Estudios, based on the principles of educational/social justice and diversity that he believed in. As a PLT GreenSchool, we incorporate those principles into every part of the PLT curriculum.

As a teacher, I really like the PLT GreenSchools curriculum. With some planning and preparation—and awareness of the special needs of my Latino students—I have been able to adapt the investigations to reflect the cultural history and linguistic diversity of our school’s students, while remaining true to Corky Gonzalez’ vision.

Escuela Tlatelolco’s “Four Educational Cornerstones” are very closely aligned with the work my students do in the PLT GreenSchools program. For example, our students must be able “to utilize critical and creative thinking,” and to “recognize, query and analyze [the] environment from the most immediate to the most remote.” We also want our students to work to actively improve the community’s health and well-being. The PLT GreenSchools Investigations are well suited to help achieve these bigger goals.

Action and Results

When we first started with PLT GreenSchools, we did the Energy Investigation. Students were sleuths who inventoried our energy use. As a result of their findings—and with the help of a PLT grant provided through funding from Learn & Serve America, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service—we started using energy-saving light bulbs, turning computers off at night before we left, and using low-flow faucets and toilets in our school bathrooms. We cut back on the number of microwave ovens available to our students. We used to have several; now we don’t have any. We also recycle on a regular basis.

Students check the aquaponics system at Denver's Urban Farm
Students check the aquaponics system at Denver’s Urban Farm

Right now, gardening is Escuela’s major focus, which is pretty remarkable since our school is completely landlocked in asphalt. We have aligned our curriculum this year around PLT lessons. Luckily, we can use Denver’s Urban Farm as our outdoor learning environment. Once a week, my students work at the farm where they raise tilapia fish and a variety of vegetables and herbs. Most of their science curriculum is integrated into what they do there.

The kids do a wide variety of projects geared toward understanding the sustainable food movement. As an example, an aquaponics system houses the farmed tilapia fish, and the water in which the fish swim is filtered through plants to provide the nutrients the plants need to grow, the plants filter the water and it returns back to the fish tank clean. In a few months, we can grow and harvest lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, and at the same time harvest fish.

My goal is to help my students understand the whole food system, all the way up to social policies. For example, we’re integrating the PLT lessons to add questions about food justice: what happens when a community doesn’t have access to fresh foods? What do they eat?

As we do PLT activities around trees, I try to bring in culturally relevant information. In addition to the maples and aspens included in the PLT curriculum, we study the ceiba tree that grows in Mexico. It’s a sacred tree in the Mayan and Aztec cultures and traditions, and there are lots of legends and stories associated with it. Adding this tree connects our studies to who my students are.

Five Latino students present at a national Green Schools conference in Denver.
The school’s emphasis on urban farming and gardening was the focus of the conference presentation by Escuela students Yesenia Luevano-Nava, Rocsana Contreras, Celerino Banuelos, Jorge Chavez, and Justin Torres.

Similarly, in addition to the PLT recommendations of poems about trees and nature, I have added a couple of poems to help my students see nature through a social justice and multicultural education lens. So alongside Robert Frost, I teach African American poet Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall,” and “La Tortuga,” a poem by Spanish poet Pablo Neruda.

Five of my students were pleased to be able to talk about this work to a national audience at a national Green Schools Conference in Denver. I hope their presentation will inspire other urban teachers to build community partnerships around gardening, regardless of their location, and to think about the possibilities of incorporating cultural diversity in their own PLT GreenSchools classrooms.

Tips for Teachers

  • Know your students and understand where they’re coming from.

That makes all the difference. It’s important to understand your students’ strengths and know, for example, which ones have a learning disability. A lot of kids with learning disabilities have been misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. Understanding which ones need extra help can help all of your students work better together.

  • Look for additional resources that you can bring into the classroom to help your students to “get it.”

I always think about my students’ different learning styles in everything I do. Some want to see. Some need to hear. Some have to have a hands-on experience. PLT offers all those opportunities, but it takes thought and preparation.

  • Plan ahead.

I work a week in advance to be sure I have everything needed to teach the next PLT lesson and make it relevant to my students.

  • Consider including reflective journaling as a regular part of your students’ PLT work.

Everything we do for PLT at Escuela Tlatelolco goes in one notebook: the assignment and the reflection about the work they’ve done. It adds an important dimension.

  • Be prepared to learn lessons from the unexpected.

When a toad that had been hibernating in our garden jumped out as one of my students was breaking up the soil, it launched them into research on what kind of a toad it was, the lifecycle of toads, and toads as “indicator species” of habitat health. The students have built a terrarium habitat for “our” toad, and are recording their observations.

  • Think outside the box.

Even city folks can become sustainable, and there’s always space in the cities for an urban garden. If you’re creative, you will find a way to make it work.


Our Environmental Journey Began with an Exchange Box

I teach Gifted and Talented at Mildred Elementary School in Corsicana, Texas. As educators, we continually request and receive materials to help develop new interests for our students. We also know that learning is not confined to the classroom, but rather can take place in any setting that presents new ideas.

My quest to offer my students opportunities related to environmental studies began when I discovered Project Learning Tree’s Environmental Exchange Box activity found in the PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide.

Planning Our Journey

I e-mailed Project Learning Tree and in a short time I received a letter linking me with Explorers Learning Center in Seymour, Connecticut – a preschool that was to become our partner in a fascinating journey. An e-mail to the principal, Jackie Yannes, put me in contact with Julie Cavanaugh, the school’s kindergarten teacher. Since my students were first and second graders and Ms. Cavanaugh’s students were kindergarten age, we decided this would be a good match.

In September, each of us began guiding our students in preparation for our “Box Exchange.” My goal in the project was to help students focus on becoming more cognizant of the natural resources around us. I also wanted my students to learn that other areas in our country have distinct natural resources that may be different from those in our locality.

The Journey Begins At Home

We began our project researching trees native to our North Central Texas region. Students collected leaves from trees found in their yards, or near their homes, and brought them to school. Through posters we acquired, an online guide to Trees of Texas from the Texas Forest Service, and What Tree Is That?, an online tree identification guide from the Arbor Day Foundation, we identified the tree from which each leaf came. This was a great way to connect school work with life at home, and also hone students’ observation and research skills.

My class consisted of seven students, so we narrowed our study to seven species of trees. Each student selected a different species of a tree to research. Time spent in the computer lab allowed students to prepare note cards with facts about the tree species they had chosen. After completing their research, students gave oral presentations to their classmates to share the information they found. Their notes would become a part of our Exchange Box contents.

A Local Field Trip Reinforces Learning

I like to enhance my students’ learning by making it relevant and tangible by connecting them to their local surroundings and things that are familiar. A local nature center operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is within driving distance of our school. Plans were made for a field trip that would give students an opportunity to walk a forest and wetlands trail, take time to observe the natural habitat, and gather specimens for inclusion in the box we would send to our partner school.

On the day of the trip, I handed out bags containing items students needed for making observations, taking notes or sketching, and collecting specimens. These items included:

  • zip bags of various sizes
  • clear plastic containers with lids
  • small scissors
  • hand lens
  • pencils, and
  • journaling pad.

Activities for the day included:

  • making tree rubbings
  • gathering leaves and specimens of native grasses, plants, and trees
  • collecting seed pods, and
  • in general, observing “all things of nature.”

In addition to the above, I wanted my students to have the opportunity to take photographs throughout the day. Because our program operates on a tight budget, as do many other educational programs, students shared the use of a digital camera.

Illustrating Our Journey

Once we were back in the classroom, students scrolled through the photos that were taken that day and selected the ones they felt best exemplified our natural wild scape. I printed the students’ selections and we added these prints to our exchange box. When asked what else should be included in our exchange box, most students wanted to draw pictures, so we set some class time aside to do this. Two students created a collage representative of trees and vegetation found in our region. Pictures from magazines such as Texas Parks & Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick were used to create their collage.

The final step was to assemble our Environmental Exchange Box and prepare it for mailing. Once this was done, our wait began for the box from students at Explorers Learning Center, our partner school in Seymour. 

A Personal Connection with Our Destination

One last special serendipitous moment occurred when a parent of one student called to tell me how excited she was to know our partner school was in Seymour, Connecticut. As a child, she had lived in Seymour for a period of time. I invited her to come as a guest speaker and bring photos of the area. Her mom had just returned from a visit with family and friends in Seymour and she was happy to share her photos with the students. What a wonderful coincidence and how fortunate we were to have this local perspective.

How excited the class was when our partner box arrived and what fun the students had examining the contents our partners had chosen to share with us!

My students benefited from it by gaining an understanding of the diversity of natural resources in the United States. Most importantly, I believe my students have a keener awareness for the beauty of nature that surrounds us, and gained new knowledge about their own environment.

Thanks to Project Learning Tree’s incredible network of educators across the United States for making our participation in this program possible. I have already made initial contact with our new partner, Pine Plains Central School District in Pine Plains, New York.

At Oil City Elementary, Environmental Education Saves the Day

Oil City Elementary GreenhouseSeveral years ago, Oil City Elementary Magnet School, located in rural northwest Louisiana, faced declining enrollment and possible closure. About one-third of the teachers were transferred elsewhere. The teachers and administrators who remained decided to fight for their school, energized by community support. Their solution: working together to create a school with an environmental focus.


Enrollment grew by about one-third, to 385 kids. School Performance Scores dramatically improved, surpassing the state average. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry named it one of the “top 10” most improved schools in the state. In 2006, Oil City won the National School Change Award from the American Association of School Administrators, Fordham University, and Pearson Education.

PLT as Catalyst

The school presented a proposal to the superintendent and school board to turn Oil City Elementary into a school that uses the environment to teach math, language arts, and other subjects. The school board agreed—with no extra funds, but at least with a promise to provide bus transportation for any kid in the district who wanted to attend and 20 extra instructional days.

The staff chose Project Learning Tree as the catalyst in turning this school around because of its track record of success in total education and student achievement. Each year the entire faculty receives ongoing PLT professional development. Under the leadership of Cindy Kilpatrick, the school’s science coordinator, teachers align PLT activities by topic and grade level across the curriculum–inside the classroom and out. Teachers taught every subject through an environmental lens, stressing hands-on, active learning.

Oil City is now also a certified PLT GreenSchool.

Suggestions from the Principal

Fortunately, a school does not have to be in the dire straits of an Oil City to gain from its experience. Principal Mike Irvin offered these suggestions:

  • Oil City Elementary Outdoor ClassroomTrain the teachers: All teachers receive training in PLT. They continue to keep up with environmental issues and how best to present these issues to their students.
  • Inspire the kids: Teachers in each grade level choose an environmental theme at the beginning of every year, for example, related to forests, wildlife habitat, or another concept. Hands-on learning, field trips, and other activities revolve around the theme. Kids clamor to find out their theme for the year.
  • Partner with the community: Grants from community groups, as well as PLT’s GreenWorks! program, helped pay for a greenhouse, a learning pavilion at nearby Caddo Lake, and other improvements. But it’s not all a question of what the community can do for the school. Students developed a butterfly garden for the hospital and care for flowers in concrete planters downtown. Families are involved in all aspects of school life.

Learning outside turned Oil City from a school on the way out to a place where things are happening for teachers and kids—inside the classroom and out.

EE_Saves_the_Day_ArticleNational Recognition

In addition to the awards mentioned above, Oil City’s turnaround was highlighted through feature articles in two prestigious educational publications: Science & Children, published by the National Science Teachers Association, and Educational Leadership, the flagship publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (You can download (PDF) the full Science & Children article “Environmental Education Saves the Day.”)

Special-Needs Students Create a Bloomin’ Butterfly Garden

At Columbiana High School in Ohio, Kathryn Kromer’s special-needs class works together, learns together, and recognizes the differing skills of each student.

For the past two years, students have volunteered each spring and fall at Goodness Grows, a church-founded, sustainable agriculture non-profit in North Lima. Goodness Grows facilitates educational workshops, produces organic vegetables, supports urban gardens, and hosts student and civic groups.

In 2010, the students learned about the importance of blossoms, native species, and pollination. They sampled fresh produce and learned about the edible parts of plants using PLT Activity 71 “Pass the Plants, Please.” This sparked their interest, and laid the foundation to complete their own garden project.

One year later, ten students and three teachers took on the creation of a pollinator garden on the Goodness Grows site. They designed and built the Bloomin’ Butterfly Garden with $700 from a PLT GreenWorks! grant, community support, and tools provided by Goodness Grows.

Gardening Builds Character and Skills

Planning and tending a garden is an avenue for all students to build character and gain skills. It allows special needs students have the opportunity to expand their capabilities in a collaborative, hands-on setting.

The Columbiana class splits into three groups and works on tasks most appropriate to their abilities. Over the past two years, these students have improved speech patterns and dexterity.

Once a week they help plant onions, peas, potatoes, turnips, lettuce, carrots, calendula, and day lilies. They water, compost, mulch, and weed. They help harvest vegetables and save seeds.

Creating the pollinator garden was a great way to connect classroom learning to the natural world, and to experience direct outcomes. They researched plants such as parsley and holly hocks that provide food for caterpillars. Nectar and pollen plants to suit local butterflies were chosen and planted as well. Not only did the garden grow and blossom, so did the students’ plant and butterfly knowledge.

Success On Many Levels

Our GreenWorks! project was successful on many levels. Not only did students gain research, planning, gardening, botany, and collaboration skills, but local groups and volunteers formed new relationships.

An unattractive mound was turned into a beautiful oasis for pollinators, and many people were inspired to see caterpillars, butterflies and bees in the area.

Before: Students and Goodness Grows Director measure the area

After: Dustin and Tori in the Bloomin’ Butterfly Garden

Students began planning the project with PLT Activity 96 “Improve Your Place.” Each student researched the nectar and feed preferences of a local pollinator. It enhanced their learning to know that the plants they researched would be the ones they would later plant and tend. Students were anxious to see the pollinators they had learned so much about.

The students took part in many aspects of the process, including:

  • Starting the seeds
  • Transplanting the seedlings
  • Drawing the garden designs (they decided on a butterfly-shaped garden)
  • Removing the sod
  • Adding compost
  • Sowing seeds according to the layout
  • Creating stepping stones for a path in the garden

Their creativity, leadership and learning are evident in the garden. They gained knowledge, skills and a sense of accomplishment for leading their project to completion.


Dan and Keegan mix and pour concrete into molds to create stepping stones while Rebekah and Tori decorate them.

Engaging Local Community Groups

As with any school garden or community project, success comes as a result of advance planning, having enough resources and a dedicated group of people with a long-term interest in the project. We found it helpful to have a project leader, schedule weekly work time, and enlist local naturalists to help.

We were fortunate to have the following local community organizations support our project:

  • A local bee keeper spoke about native bees during one of the nine weeks the students were at Goodness Grows.
  • A member of the Youngstown Men’s Garden Club helped determine the space and moisture requirements for each plant.
  • A speaker at a local Audubon Society meeting provided a pamphlet that listed our area’s local butterflies.
  • Community volunteers and church members worked alongside the students to encourage and help them complete the project.

Helpful Tips

Create a plan

To plan a garden project that will be enjoyable and rewarding, calculate the time, tools, materials, and funds you will need to create and maintain it over the long-term.

Set a schedule

Goodness Grows’ staff, the students, teachers and volunteers worked on the garden every Tuesday for nine weeks. The students, with support from teachers and volunteers, conducted research in the classroom and worked hard during on-site workdays. We allowed for three weeks of planning time before breaking ground, and we took three weeks after school ended to add the finishing touches. Over the summer, other volunteers installed a sign, pulled weeds, mulched and dead-headed plants.

Learn from local experts

It was very helpful that local naturalists gave their knowledge and time, plant starts and seeds to the Bloomin’ Butterfly Garden. They helped recommend plants that would not spread or takeover, such as tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), false nettle seed (Boehmeria cylindrical), and “Lo and Behold Blue Chip” butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.)

Use the garden as an ongoing educational tool for students and the community

Our garden acts as a live lab for environmental education and horticulture programs. The double-sided sign features the butterfly’s lifecycle and food needs. Markers identify the diverse mix of annuals (zinnia, sunflower and hollyhock), perennials (cardinal flower, purple coneflower, butterfly bush, milkweed, and bee balm) and herbs (parsley, yarrow, and thyme).

The students and volunteers continue to care for the garden when they return to Goodness Grows each week in the fall. Recently they were excited to host a local garden club interested in seeing what a special-needs class and a church gardening ministry could accomplish together.

Our beautiful pollinator garden continues to show the students rewards of participating in the yearly cycle of life. It is vibrant, educational, and maintained thanks to the commitment of dedicated students, teachers and community members working together.