Outdoor Space Provides Many Learning Opportunities

Positioning rose bushOne team, one dream. That’s the vision of Pride Avenue Elementary School in Madisonville, Kentucky. Our vision helps create a school climate that is positive, family-oriented, and geared toward exploration and hands-on learning.

Our new “Courtyard of Curiosity” supports that vision. Thanks to my PLT training, we have incorporated PLT activities into the school. Thanks to a PLT GreenWorks grant, we are on our way to creating an inviting outdoor space between an existing and new wing of the school.


Making memories outdoors

When I Pride Avenue Elementary myself, we sometimes went out in the woods behind the school, which had a small amphitheater. I remembered my own experiences out there so well and have many memories of being outdoors.

Now as a teacher, we began to talk about building an outdoor learning area. I knew it would be a great project for the Pride Avenue kids. Unlike the area from my childhood, however, we decided the outdoor space should be easily accessible from the school building. Students and teachers can access the new courtyard from two different parts of the school.


Partnerships make the outdoor space more inviting and sustainable

Composting a pumpkinThrough a partnership with Green Giant Landscaping and employees from General Electric, students planned, built, and now maintain our new area. Fifth graders also developed a butterfly garden in conjunction with a Chrysalis project. They released butterflies into the garden and have observed many butterflies that lingered with us.

Fourth- and fifth-graders set up a composting station—composting pumpkins was also a real hit.

A local Girl Scout troop approached us to plant rose bushes in one corner of the area. They earned their badges, and we have a beautiful spot to enjoy. We plan to have an outdoor plaque installed in this area to feature the girls by name from the troop that completed it.

Various trees and bushes, native as well as nonnative to Kentucky, are spread throughout the courtyard. Benches will be installed near these areas to create little sanctuaries for reading and reflection.


Change didn’t happen overnight

Things got off to a slower start than we anticipated, partly due to delays with school construction going on simultaneously.

It turned out the adjoining area needed a better drainage system, which our board office provided, through an in-kind $20,000 expense. It took a while to troubleshoot and solve the problem. But the upside is that the plants and trees in the Courtyard will fare much better with improved drainage.

Student volunteers for initial plantingFunding from various sources provided us much-needed resources to complete this project. A PLT GreenWorks grant provided a good portion of our funding. We also received a $2,000 grant from the Hopkins County Education Foundation.

We also won contests run by the Sonic Corporation (Limeades for Learning-$800 in products) and Big Lots (Lots2Give-$2,500 grant) to secure additional funding and supplies.  These contests were based on online voting. With a little organization, these kinds of opportunities can pay off. We mobilized the school community to vote through reminders on school menus and other information that went home in backpacks and flyers distributed to parents during afternoon pick-up time. It worked!


Lessons along the way

Although our outdoor space is still a work in progress, we have already learned some valuable lessons:


Patience and determination are essential

We were hoping to start planting in 2009, but it took until April of 2011 to really get things rolling. Some circumstances were out of our control—we just had to accept that. But we didn’t give up the project either! We continued to work with the school district’s Facilities office to keep our dream alive. Patience and determination paid off.


Help can come from unexpected places

We received funding from several sources and volunteers from local employers also helped create the new space.

Sometimes, the help we received came from an unexpected place. For example, the plant leader for GE is the father of a student who attends Pride. He brought about 20 volunteers with him on a Saturday to landscape the area. This initial landscaping effort only took five to six hours utilizing an eager group of volunteers versus days with only a handful of our school stakeholders. Thank goodness we all had team spirit and wanted to give back to students in our community.


The outdoor space can provide many kinds of learning opportunities

Girl Scouts troop after plantingWe have many new ideas for the new space that will provide different learning opportunities for the students.

We’d like to continue developing the space by:

  • Creating more habitats for students to observe living creatures in natural places, such as a pond,
  • Showing how we can capture energy from the sun with a solar-powered water pump in the pond and solar-powered birdbaths,
  • Installing a spider web frame so we can examine the formation of webs up close while respecting wildlife, and
  • Installing a plant cam to capture photos over time to assemble into a video that will show the full life cycle of growth.

So far, older students have spent the most time on activities in the Courtyard. We are hoping they can serve as mentors to younger students, a relationship that will benefit both groups. It’s been a growing adventure creating our “Courtyard of Curiosity,” and we are definitely cultivating minds here at Pride through its creation!

Keeping Students Engaged Through “Green Teams”

NH-Bicentennial Elementary School

For many years, New Hampshire Project Learning Tree has worked closely with Bicentennial Elementary School, a school of about 670 K-5 students in Nashua, NH, to embed study of the environment into our curriculum at every grade level, provide sustained teacher professional development, and build stronger connections between the school and its surrounding community.

PLT’s GreenSchools Investigations and environmental improvement service-learning projects have been incorporated into this “whole-school” work. Driven by the school’s Green Team, which is a volunteer student group comprised mostly of 5th graders, teams of students and teachers have investigated their school’s solid waste and recycling, water, and energy.

Reactions and Results

It feels good to be doing something to save energy.”
“I want to save money for the school.”
“I was inspired by the time I spend outside with my dad.”

These comments from 5th-graders on Bicentennial’s Green Team reflect why our efforts are both popular and successful. Just like adults, children have lots of reasons why they want to learn and take action about things they think are important. PLT GreenSchools helps us give them this opportunity.

We incorporated environmental themes into science, language arts, math, art, and music. Among other achievements, our students’ science scores rose, and a focus on environmental education has had a positive impact on students, teachers, and the entire community.

In an email to the school staff several years ago, Principal Kyle Langille said, “It is with great excitement and pride I let you know our NECAP [New England Common Assessment Program] Science scores for grade 4 show significant improvement. Our renewed emphasis on the science GSEs, our continued partnership with Project Learning Tree and your highly motivating and engaging lessons, are all contributing factors. Congratulations! It takes a collective effort to see this kind of change.”

Audits and Action

Through PLT GreenSchools, students examine the impact of the school on the environment and then design and carry out activities related to their findings. What we like about it is that we received training and resources so students—even at this young age—can carry out rigorous, data-based audits. Our fifth-graders formed a “Green Team” and meet weekly during recess to take action based on the findings from the audits. Here’s what they have done so far:

Energy Investigation:

The energy audit prompted installation of “Hit the Switch” reminders on all light switches. The students also designed “Energy Vampire” and “Energy Angel” classroom stickers—reminding offenders that they are “sucking up energy” when they leave lights on unnecessarily or are helping when they turn lights off.

Waste Investigation:

Keeping Students Engaged Through “Green Teams”The waste audit inspired a plastic and aluminum recycling program, a first for Nashua’s public schools. The program is student-run, and the students collect and sort recyclables. Second and third graders formed a “compost team” in concert with the cafeteria staff.

The Green Team also wanted to continue to minimize waste by having an “It’s Easy Being Green Yard Sale” in the spring near Earth Day. Staff, parents, and community members benefit from this event! By cleaning out closets, we fill our entire cafeteria with donated items that are recycled back to our community. The Green Team also constructed a little golf course out of recycled materials for kids while their parents shopped. We sold compost bins, rain barrels, and aluminum water bottles at this event, as well as demonstrated how worms break down material in some compost bins. The Green Team picked herbs from our outdoor classroom, let them dry, and made scented bags to sell at the yard sale.

Water Investigation:

When students realized the impact of purchasing bottled water, they created a “Back2Tap” campaign. The Green Team now sells re-fillable aluminum water bottles to students and staff.

The water investigation also revealed that our school had 3-gallon flush toilets. Students quickly found out this was a waste of water and wanted to find a way to change to 1-gallon flush toilets. We applied for a grant from the National Environmental Education Foundation that helped us to install six low-flow toilets, a start toward our goal.

Tips for Teachers

Keeping a program going beyond the initial excitement is always a challenge. A few things that have worked at Bicentennial:

Make connections: From an educational perspective, of course we need to connect to the curriculum. But it’s also important to motivate kids by connecting to the things they value. The comment above from a student about associating nature with her father is a great example.

Let students lead: It is tempting for us to want to save time and tell students what they should do. Sometimes we need to sit back and let them figure it out for themselves (as long as they remain safe). They have more ownership and they have learned valuable lessons.

Get buy-in: When we first decided to integrate environmental education throughout the school, the faculty took a vote—and it was very close. Since then, teachers have seen the benefits for themselves and their students, and the school leadership, up to and including the superintendent, has been very supportive. This is a great boost to what we are trying to accomplish at Bicentennial.

Have a committed coordinator: A coordinator promotes teamwork and decision-making. This person shows leadership by coordinating the Green Team, encouraging a sense of shared responsibility, providing the team with information, and overseeing implementation of programs.

GreenSchools in the Nation’s Capital

When most Americans think about Washington, DC, they think of the White House, Capitol, and Smithsonian. But the nation’s capital is also home to almost 600,000 people in neighborhoods throughout the city.

One advantage of being in Washington is the proximity of national leaders. For example, several years ago, students, teachers, and the principal of Barnard Elementary School attended a reception hosted by the American Forest Foundation, the national sponsor of Project Learning Tree, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Association of State Foresters, at which Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke in honor of International Year of Forests.

“It was very exciting for our kids,” said teacher Geraldine Meredith.  “They wore their best, crispest uniforms.  For them to stand next to and talk with high-level officials who they would ordinarily only see on TV was an empowering experience for them.”

Grants from the U.S. Forest Service and Learn and Serve America are supporting PLT GreenSchools in Washington. Seven schools worked toward becoming model PLT GreenSchools: Barnard Elementary, Miner Elementary, Martin Luther King Elementary, McKinley Technology High School, Paul Public Charter Middle School, Elsie Stokes Charter School, and Thurgood Marshall High School.

Out in the Gardens

Every day is not quite as exciting as a reception with a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, but Barnard teachers have found that other GreenSchools-related activities also motivate students. With the assistance of chef and Certified Master Gardener Mark Haskell, they developed gardens, which are now being expanded. “We are in the gardens all year round, not just in nice weather,” said Meredith. “We have a life-science standard about the cycle of life—what better way to learn than to see the garden growing in one season, then dying in winter, then growing.”

Using a garden for a science lesson is exactly what is needed to keep the project sustainable, according to Haskell. “Gardens can teach anything—European and African cultures, math, writing, art,” he said. “The key is to sit down with teachers and find out what they need to accomplish, and here’s how we can do it in the garden.” At the same time, he noted, students are happy outside, they are getting physical activity to combat childhood obesity, they are adding beauty to their community, and other benefits take place.

Haskell has worked with several other D.C. schools on their gardens. “One of my favorites is in a black asphalt parking lot at Paul [Middle School],” he said. “In the middle of the drought last summer, it was blooming and it was beautiful.”

Student Voice

“Honestly, before GreenSchools, I had minimal experience with environmental work,” said seventh-grade science teacher Julia Vereen. “Now we have a way to show students that if you take care of the earth, it will take care of you, for example, by providing nutritious food for your body.” 

Paul Middle School and Barnard Elementary School are located near each other. Through their shared GreenSchools involvement, Paul students mentored younger students at Barnard, starting with a project on Earth Day. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Paul 6th and 7th grade students helped 4th grade Barnard students, plus teachers, parents, public officials and community volunteers, plant Barnard’s organic, raised-bed gardens and dedicate an outdoor, instructional classroom. Vereen and Sharon McCrea, a fourth-grade teacher at Barnard, noted the advantages for both the older and younger students.

“One thing that is great about PLT’s GreenSchools is that students learn they have a voice,” she said. “Beyond us, they will take that to a level on their own.”

Little Things Add Up

According to Trisha Nakano, the wellness coordinator at Stokes, a Washington charter elementary school, PLT’s GreenSchools program has made the school community more conscious of ways to reduce waste. Last year, students measured energy usage and weighed trash. In the cafeteria, a local milk supplier now provides milk in a large dispenser, rather than in individual cartons, and a switch to an institutional dishwasher allowed the use of reusable plates and utensils. The number of photocopies is way down. Sixth-graders are now researching how to introduce composting.

“Community service is a big part of the school,” Nakano said. “Every trimester, every class does a community service project. GreenSchools is a way for us to do that.”

Tips for Success

The teachers were asked for suggestions about how to make PLT’s GreenSchools program a success. Perhaps not surprisingly, they came up with many similar ideas:

• Gather a core group of teachers: “A group of teachers is really helpful,” said Trisha Nakano, Stokes Charter School. Geraldine Meredith from Barnard Elementary agreed. “No one person can do it all,” she said.

• Supportive administration: “The principal has to see the value and teaching opportunities,” said Sharon McCrea, Barnard Elementary.

• Integrate into the curriculum: “Infuse study of the environment into the curriculum,” said Julia Vereen, Paul Middle School. “That way, it becomes a staple, not just what a few teachers do.”

• Tap into local opportunities: “There is always a resource,” said Vereen. “The worst thing that can happen is that someone says no.”

In addition, gardener Mark Haskell stressed the need to integrate garden projects into what teachers already need to accomplish. “Teachers are so busy, they don’t need new mandates of things to do,” he said. “But with a garden, you can teach anything.”

He also advised checking to see what might already exist on school grounds. For example, several schools in Washington have greenhouses that were not being used. Students at McKinley High School are now starting to raise thousands of fruit, herb, and vegetable seedlings in these greenhouses, and he is looking for partners to expand the program. 


Project Produce Garden Sparks Healthy Lifestyle Changes

After a few months of growing vegetables at Glenvar Middle School in Salem, Va., the students’ favorite recipes are “Hot Chinese Cabbage,” “Raddish Top Soup,” and “Mustard Greens Fried Rice.”

Not only did they learn how to grow the food, they learned how to cook it as well! By the middle of the school year, the sixth grade students had accumulated enough recipes to create their own cookbook for their parents as a gift.

With the help of a GreenWorks! grant from Project Learning Tree, the project started as a method of engaging a class of 16 high-risk students in sixth grade. Over the years, it has grown to include more than 140 sixth graders.

First, students built four raised-bed gardens. The students then researched recipes and voted on their favorites.
During the fall, we cooked almost every Friday in the classroom using an electric skillet. 

These students are not only excited about growing vegetables – they are eating healthy!

I used the National Gardening Association’s guide “Health and Nutrition from the Garden” to give me more ideas to help my students implement healthy life-style changes.  As the students began to appreciate the food they were growing and eating, they were ready to expand the gardening experience into their own homes.

Students selected plants for their home gardens, and in February we planted seeds for seedlings to go home with each student. The first year the students grew over 300 seedlings to transplanting size.

The Glenvar gardens were planted with salad vegetables, and the students learned not only how to grow and take care of them, but they also practiced scientific investigation.  When school came to an end, at least two plants went home with each student and we harvested enough salad greens to feed every sixth grader all the salad they could eat during the exam period break. The students left school confident in their ability to grow and cook their own food.

Expanding and building a greenhouse

Before the year was out, the wall-to-wall seedlings in every window and under every light in my classroom highlighted the need for expansion. In partnership with one of our eighth grade math classes, students began to make plans for a greenhouse!

I’m proud to say that a high-hoop style greenhouse has recently been built by the eighth grade “Green Math” class behind our school.  The math students have also spent countless hours building and installing two cold frames on our existing raised beds, as well as constructing eight additional raised beds for the new greenhouse.

In April, the spring seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are starting to pop up all over my room. Carrots and beets are also growing under our cold frames, and the lettuce and spinach planted in our outdoor gardens has recently been refreshed with compost.  I’m thrilled that Project Produce has expanded into multiple disciplines and grade levels and is touching countless students and families at Glenvar Middle School. 

Tips for engaging your students in gardening projects

Involve students early on

Involve students in decision-making even before a project’s inception, and help them incorporate their interests into a research plan.  For example, Project Produce students at Glenvar Middle School were responsible for researching which plants would grow best in their local area. 

Use planning as a learning opportunity

Get students to ask—and answer—complex questions during the project planning.  For example, Glenvar students needed to know What is the volume of soil needed to fill a 4′ by 4′ raised garden bed?

Project Produce students are responsible for all aspects of garden growth, including transplanting, watering, weeding, monitoring, and protecting the plants during unseasonable weather. 

Assign specific projects to groups

I assigned groups of Glenvar students into “gardening families” and each group designed and implemented a garden layout. Collectively, these young gardeners planned which vegetables each group should plant in each assigned garden plot. 

Establishing these groups created a sense of accountability among the students. Through their collaborative approach, students understand that they depend on each other.  For example. if a plant is not growing or there is evidence of pests, students must make inferences to determine the cause of the problem.

Reach out to community partners

External supporters can become your champions, and help your students research, plan, and continue project maintenance.  Through effective outreach, your project can receive financial support, media attention, and extra helping hands.

Our students partnered with Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Sheri Dorn to plan and build the original raised-bed gardens. David Williams, a master gardener, continued the partnership with the students as they built “critter cages” to keep out unwanted 4-legged visitors.

Mr. Williams also helped the students set up a red wiggler worm bin in which students place their lunch scraps to make rich compost for the garden.  He visited the classroom frequently and acted as a mentor both within the school program and also in the students’ homes and in our community.

Project Produce has been the subject of several newspaper articles, and I have presented it at several state education conferences.  Katie Williams, former Glenvar Middle School teacher, volunteered her time to help write—and secure—the GreenWorks! grant.  Our local Parent Teacher Association and the Roanoke County Schools Education Foundation provides support to Project Produce, and Koppers Industries committed financial and in-kind support when extra materials or labor were needed for the garden. 

Celebrate and share

A school garden is only one idea for an educational and rewarding environmental service-learning project.  Successful projects involve your local community and require students to think creatively. They also include different subjects, age groups, or abilities. 

Glenvar Middle School students are the harvesters—literally—of their project’s successes.  For their first spring harvest, students collected 25 gallons of spring greens from their gardens and donated over 20 gallons to the local Rescue Mission.  A few years later, they harvested two gallons of red Russian kale, dwarf blue kale, India mustard, and southern giant mustard.  From this, students made—and blogged about—garden cornbread.  The final harvest from last fall’s garden was in early January, and students created dishes in the classroom with four cabbages, harvested frozen!

Check out the Project Produce blog to learn more.

Two Schools in One City Show the Versatility of GreenSchools

Stonewall Jackson Middle School and The Monarch School are both in Houston and are both committed to their students–but at first glance, they do not seem to have much else in common.

Jackson was built in 1926 and is in the city. Monarch’s new building opened in 2009 on 11 acres. Jackson, a public school, has 950 students in grades 6 through 8, while Monarch, a private school, has 110 students of all ages.

But these two very different schools do have something else in common—both are PLT GreenSchools and both are finding ways to use the program to meet the needs of their students.

“When we developed PLT’s GreenSchools program, we wanted to ensure that it could work in rural, suburban, and urban schools, large and small, diverse and underserved” said James McGirt, PLT GreenSchools coordinator. “The feedback we get from participating schools shows that the program has the flexibility we were looking for.”

“When I started looking into the PLT GreenSchools curriculum, I liked it because it was very hands-on, and the kids had power,” said Richard Klein, director of the environmental education program at Monarch. “Kids were all on the same level as their teachers and the school administrators. Because of that, we knew that our kids would buy into the program, notice the changes they were able to make, and be proud of what they’d accomplished.  This program makes an impact because the kids have ownership of it. They leave here, and they’re still remembering and using what they’ve learned even after they graduate.”

PLT’s GreenSchools! program combines environmental education, service learning, and leadership opportunities for students to reduce the ecological footprint of their school and turn it into a model GreenSchool. Thousands of schools nationwide have registered to become part of the program, which has three components: professional development in environmental education and PLT, student-led investigations into their school’s energy, water, waste and recycling, site and other environmental aspects, and service learning based on their findings.

An Urban School, an Unexpected Renovation

Most of Stonewall Jackson Middle School is 80 years old; a “newer” addition was built in 1980. It is a Title I school with a student population that is almost 95 percent Latino. “GreenSchools has been great for our students because it exposes them to opportunities in the real world,” said Joseph Alva, LEP (Limited English Proficiency) coordinator. He is faculty sponsor of an after-school club called the Energy Busters, which has taken on the PLT GreenSchools activities.

For example, as part of the PLT GreenSchools Energy Investigation, students worked with a professor at the Energy Institute at Houston Community College. They learned how to conduct an energy audit on the college campus, which they applied by conducting an audit back at Jackson.

One twist in their plans, however: In 2010, a long-delayed school renovation began. “It was good for the school, but not for our investigations,” said Alva. Now, some of the students’ projects and plans, such as their recommendation to install motion sensors, were put on hold until the construction projects are over.

PLT GreenSchools has proven to be a lesson for the students in adapting to circumstances. Because of the construction, students decided to focus on three enclosed atriums that remain untouched during the renovation. In one, they are growing a vegetable garden, learning how to improve it over time, and hoping to eventually harvest enough produce to donate in the community. A second is a concrete space where they have added some play equipment and are investigating how to install a rain barrel, and they have cleared, weeded, and mulched the area in the third atrium. Students also hope to start a recycling program.

Joni Springer, a science teacher, said undertaking PLT GreenSchools as a multi-grade club works well at Jackson. “By involving sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, it’s ongoing,” she said. “Otherwise, eighth graders, for example, would move on, and it would take a while to get things up and running again.”

She had another piece of advice: “The activities are set up so that kids can follow the procedures,” she said. “Have the kids take the lead, with the teacher as the facilitator.”

“In Latin America, the school is the center of the community,” said Alva. “GreenSchools is a great way to make people aware that this school is not just for kids, it is for the community.”

A LEED School, A Way to Learn

The Monarch School is a private school dedicated to providing an innovative, therapeutic education for children with neurological differences, such as autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, learning disabilities, Tourette syndrome, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and other neurological differences.

Founded in 1997, Monarch began in three temporary buildings on a rental property, expanding three years later to include three suites in a business park. In August 2009, Monarch students and faculty moved onto their permanent campus in a new building, which is LEED-certified at the Gold level by the U.S. Green Building Council.

With many environmental features built into the new facility, teacher Richard Klein noted that PLT’s GreenSchools can still foster opportunities for environmental improvements and student learning. “Even in a new building, students and faculty don’t always get training in how to use all the features,” he noted. “We have had several big ‘ah-ha’ moments related to usage.”

Students and their teacher at a school in Houston work on building a piece of equipment in the outdoors.Klein said the hands-on aspects of PLT GreenSchools  appeal to his students and reflects the multi-sensory approach of the Monarch curriculum. “Students like the hands-on in collecting data,” he said. “The important thing, though, is not just to collect data but figure out what to do with the information. What do the numbers mean for the big picture? What should we do, based on the data?”

Even the forms themselves prompt learning. “Students ask me about why the forms have so much white space,” noted Klein. “Then we discuss the need to comment and write down observations, not just collect numbers.”

Through their investigations, the students calculated the energy savings that would be gained by switching to laptop computers. The students made a proposal to buy new laptops, and received a grant that went toward new computers. After documenting the energy savings ($160 per computer per year) from this first round of computer purchases, the students wrote and received another grant to replace all the computers in the school with energy-efficient laptops.They followed the PLT GreenSchools process to research and report their findings to Monarch’s executive board of trustees. “At first I was nervous,” said one student about the presentation. “We were trying to give a message that we are doing a good job for the environment.”

To help save energy, Monarch students planted 120 new trees to create shade on the campus. When drought caused one-third of the new trees to die, the students designed and installed irrigation lines on the perimeter to supply the trees with water during dry periods.

Several students made a DVD about the investigations that was shown at the Project Learning Tree International Conference in 2010. “I told the students that PLT was impressed with their work and would like to see a video of the process,” said Klein. “The students went to work immediately. As one student said succinctly when describing how their criteria for recommending new computers expanded to also include how much the computer is going to cost to run, “something that looks pretty is not as good as something that works pretty.”

Klein stressed the importance of the PLT GreenSchools process, beyond the content. “As students work through the survey questions, the teacher may have a tendency to lead the students,” he said. “I would encourage teachers not to do that. Give students the time to come up with the answers on their own. Their relationships and communication with each other develop as a result.”

A Small Project Inspires Students to Tackle Bigger Challenges

People connect to nature best when it’s with their head and their heart. That’s what led students at Upper Arlington High School in Columbus, OH, to create a self-guided Meditation Nature Trail at a local ecology center.

Beginning in the 2008-09 school year, students teamed up with Capitol Square Rotary Club to design and construct the trail. The students took charge investigating local ecosystems, determining a route and station locations, developing themes, and conducting an online survey to better understand how the local community best connects to nature.

They set up the trail at Shepherd’s Corner, a 160-acre ecology center of the Dominican Sisters of Peace located in Blacklick, Ohio. Each station sign includes a fact for the mind, a reflection for the heart, and an activity for the entire being.

Originally designed as a five-week inquiry-based project, the students continued to volunteer their time for the next year and a half. “At first, I just got involved because I needed some service hours. But then I really began to feel connected to the place – and I saw I could make a difference and do something positive to help people and the environment,” said Rose Mantel, an Upper Arlington High School student.

The students enjoyed seeing their ideas come to life in the trail stations. After the completion of that project, they decided to undertake a final project to tie everything together and create a more holistic learning experience for the trail visitors.

With the help of a PLT GreenWorks! grant, students developed and installed the trail’s final station during the 2009-10 school year.  This “Web of Life” station, based on PLT Activity 45, culminates all the previous stations’ themes and gets people to think about nature’s countless connections.


Interpreting PLT’s “Web of Life” Activity

In PLT’s “web of life” activity, students conduct research and simulate a food web to discover the many ways that plants and animals are connected.  Students decided to bring this activity to a new level. They took on the challenge of interpreting the activity in a way that would work for a permanent structure. 

At the Web of Life trail station that the high school students designed, participants learn about and assume the role of a local native species.  The physical web provides an opportunity to reflect on the concepts of interconnectedness in nature and effects of losing species.

The 14ft diameter web is composed of nine posts and a sloped cable, enabling people of various ages and heights to reach it.  Forty-five removable signs hang on the web, each representing a local native species. 

Individuals can read, remove, relocate, and wear the signs as they explore relationships among species.  As individuals tug on the rope, they see how one action can affect multiple areas of the web. 

A lot went into the planning process for this station.  Many hours were spent at Home Depot, asking questions, deciding construction materials, and evaluating costs.  They built a scale mock-up of a web section and species signs.  They refined their design several times after presenting their ideas to Shepherd’s Corner staff.

“Working on the Web of Life made me realize how many decisions and small details go into the making of a large-scale project. It was both challenging and rewarding to design something that will appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds,” said Julie Laudick, one of the students who worked on the project.

The Web has several layers of education to it, with various ways it can be used by different age groups.  It provides for multiple learning modes, so the educational activity can be memorable for as many youth as possible. When students use the Web, their questions and discussion are thought-provoking.


Debuting the Web of Life

In July 2010, students hosted summer campers (age 9-12) in the first official use of the Web.  They met with the local newspaper’s photographer and were interviewed individually by the reporter over the phone.

Watching students experience his work, Gaven McDaniel said, “I really hope that even at such a young age, they begin to understand why they need to watch what they do, because what we do impacts not only ourselves, but everything else that lives around us,” he said.  “It might be a stretch, but hopefully they can start making changes in their own lives.”

During the summer, high school students continued to refine how to conduct the activity. Shepherd’s Corner staff use the web with youth groups, and families in the local community visit the trail with their children and engage with the web on their own. 


Challenges and Lessons Learned

PLT’s GreenWorks! grants, with their focus on education and student leadership, ensured that the project was student-led and incorporated opportunities for environmental education.  To that end, this project was an incredible success, but it did not, however, go without its challenges.

Design challenges

There were plenty of glitches along the way with the design – engineering challenges, not having the correct materials in stock, ground too wet for installation, winter weather too cold for staining, etc. Each of these presented a “real life” opportunity to problem solve. Often, these troubles lead to improved design and implementation.


Perhaps the only significant difficulty was timing. The plan was to complete the project in late spring, but the naturally busy ebb and flow of a high school senior’s life was not factored into the original timeline!  Beyond graduation and into the summer, the group worked to complete the project in late July.


In terms of process and education, students were surprised to learn how much planning is involved in a project such as this one. These skills will undoubtedly transfer into future service activities, projects, events – and careers!

Building relationships

Students also established strong and positive working relationships.  They worked with Shepherd’s Corner, taking responsibility to complete pieces of the project independently.   They built a partnership with Capitol Square Rotary Club and involved 20 of their fellow students. 

A new appreciation for their local environment

Students have commented what a deeper, richer respect they have for their local environment. They were dedicated in their research to learn and teach others about nearly 50 local native species.  And, perhaps most importantly, they learned to teach others to appreciate the environment around them.


Keys to Success

Community organizations

Community organizations provide adult mentors and opportunities for youth to interact with adults in a coached, safe, real-world environment. 

For this project, specific adult skills were available to provide guidance in different situations: an architect and engineer to help with design, an education director/teacher to guide the local species research and educational programming, a naturalist to teach, a farmer “Mr. Fix-it” who had many tools and skills to help us construct. 

Students also took some of their design challenges home and enrolled parents or older siblings to help them problem solve.

Start with a small project first

It’s helpful to grow a GreenWorks! project out of another, smaller project. In this case, the GreenWorks! project grew from a previous year’s work with students.  They helped create the initial design for the trail in 2008.  Wanting to see their vision through to completion, two returning students recruited and lead others in implementing a project of their own. Adults can’t manufacture or demand this commitment; it must grow on its own from within a small committed group of youth – over time.

Commitment to service

It’s helpful for the schools, programs, and organizations involved to have a commitment to service. Upper Arlington High School requires its students to complete service learning hours and a (research or service) project in order to graduate. 

Students also helped raise funds for this project, through community booths and bake sales, as well as gathering in-kind donations from their school and parents. 

They also gave two public presentations – to the Rotary Club and at a PLT statewide conference. This gave them positive feedback during a long-term project.

Keep in contact with state PLT coordinator

It is rewarding to keep in close contact with your state’s PLT coordinator. This grant was special in the way it engaged students with PLT activities, the Ohio PLT State Coordinator, and other PLT leaders, facilitators, and teachers from across the state.

We invited the Ohio PLT State Coordinator, Sue Wintering, to our Rotary meeting, shared our project with her at different points in design/construction, and invited her to the debut of the educational activity at the Web.  It was meaningful and helpful to have this connection and feedback.

Student commitment

Ultimately, the biggest key to success in this project was the devotion and commitment of the students. This project wasn’t something they did to finish their Senior service project or to add a line to their resume. This project became an important thread in their lives. 

This happened organically– quietly, joyfully, without any planning or preparation. Mentoring relationships grew between Rotarians, Shepherd’s Corner staff, and students.  Friendships grew…and education flourished. 

A GreenSchool Investigates, Then Takes Action

Lowcountry Prep, a K-12 school in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, is an example of how a school can use PLT’s GreenSchools investigations to benefit student learning, the environment, and the bottom line.  

Several years ago, Lowcountry was selected as one of 60 nationwide to receive a grant from Learn and Serve America to participate in PLT’s GreenSchools program. As part of the grant, three teachers and seven middle school students attended a workshop where they leaned how to conduct school-wide investigations in the five GreenSchools topic areas: energy, water, school site, waste and recycling, and environmental quality. They learned how to use light meters, thermometers, scales, and other tools to collect data on which to base decisions for future environmental action. In this way, students use their knowledge and skills from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses to address challenges at their school.

Back at school, the students formed teams, two to four students each, and conducted their research once a week for six weeks. “It was fun to collect data,” recalled then-9th-grader Elizabeth Zieser-Misenheimer. “When we went into classrooms to measure and weigh, other teachers and students would ask us about what we were doing, so that helped build interest.”

The students shared their findings with the school’s board of trustees, along with recommended actions. With solid data and a well-prepared presentation, they were met with excitement and unopposed support for their work.

“We, as students, are the ones who are affected by changes in our schools,” said Zieser-Misenheimer. “Expressing our opinions on what happens at our school helps us learn to make decisions, keeps us devoted to being green, and gives us satisfaction in environmental achievements. It is a privilege for students to be given this opportunity of being taken seriously by adults.”

Energy Investigation

At the Green Team’s recommendation, watt light bulbs were replaced with watt CFLs, and teachers were encouraged to turn the lights off and use day-lighting as much as possible.

Teachers and older students  work with younger students to develop good habits early, so that saving energy is part of the daily routine. For example, several years ago, lower school students were given an incentive to conserve energy in a “Greenest Grade” competition, where factors included how regularly students turned the lights off when they left the classroom. The class that did the best celebrated with a pizza party.

Energy and other environmental issues are incorporated into lessons in almost every grade.

Waste and Recycling

Through this investigation, the recycling program expanded from paper to encompass printer cartridges, glass, aluminum, and plastic. The Green Team made recycling bins out of used copy paper cartons and placed one in every classroom, with two large bins located prominently in the hallway. Recycling bins for plastic and aluminum were also placed in the hallways of both school buildings, the entrance to the gym, and the cafeteria.

Prior to implementing the Waste and Recycling Investigation, Lowcountry Prep had an average of 62.19 lbs of waste and about 25.5 lbs of recycling every day. The proportions reversed: an average 52.5 lbs of recycling and 45.9 lbs of waste every day!

Although the students no longer weigh trash and recycled items, recycling has become a way of life. Groups of students are in charge of recycling—one for paper, the other for plastics and cans—and recycling takes place throughout the campus.

Water Investigation

The Green Team checked the entire school campus for leaks (Gym, Upper and Lower schools, Trailers). Fixing them saved about $2,000 a year in water costs.

The third grade has a unit about water conservation. Through stories and illustrations, they learned good habits that prevent wasted water.

School Site Investigation

As part of the school site investigation, students planted a butterfly garden, flower gardens, and a garden with native plants and vegetables. Birdhouses and bird feeders dot the campus.

To support drainage and water runoff, the school has an island in the middle of the campus that had native grasses and palmetto trees and a small pond. Weeds had invaded and replaced much of the native vegetation, so, as Neubauer said, “we are currently rethinking this and trying to come up with a plan.”Students at LowCountry Prep in Pawleys Island, South Carolina present a drawing for their ideal campus to a faculty member

Classes often meet outside on the nature trails, making observations at the pond, having class in the outdoor classroom, or just playing with friends on the athletic field. “Our middle school students love to play tag on the nature trail,” noted Neubauer. “Convincing them to care about and protect the natural environment starts with being able to enjoy it.”

Environmental Quality Investigation

Students are learning to be more aware of the school’s pollution output and to take action in improving the environment. Students set up a carpooling contest among the Lower School students. 

The Middle School Earth Science class has integrated environmental education. The senior class has an Advanced Placement Environmental science course, and other environmental lessons are integrated throughout the curriculum. In addition, a group of Neubauer’s high school students teach a 30-minute lesson in the elementary school using Uno’s Garden, The Lorax, and other books.

Through a grant, Lowcountry will get a greenhouse, which will become the focus of a new round of investigations and action. “We are looking forward to learning how to grow crops and vegetables sustainably in our new greenhouse,” said Upper School teacher Selanga Ranawaka.

Benefits and Advice

“This program gives the school tools to make decisions, and gives kids a sense of purpose and worthwhile achievement,” said Sandy Gresham, who helped bring PLT to Lowcountry, where she taught until retiring in 2010. She also noted that the GreenSchools! program, combined with other PLT activities, contributed to a rise in school science scores. On the financial side, the teams monitored the cost savings, using previous year’s investigations as their baseline for comparison.

In looking back at what the teams accomplished, student Stellings Lee said she and her classmates felt most proud of how much data they collected, how many students were involved, and how excited the whole school became.

Lowcountry teachers passed on this advice to other teachers considering involvement in PLT’s GreenSchools program:

  • Make the investigations part of class 
  • Learn how to use the equipment to feel comfortable with it
  • Connect with theater or English, rather than keeping the program just within the science curriculum

“Kids are involved in hands-on learning and doing their own research,” said Neubauer. “They really learn, and are excited about learning, in this program.”

The students passed along the following advice to other students:

  • Think creatively
  • Involve the entire school
  • Focus on the areas that need the most improvement.


As Trees Grow, We Grow!

“As Trees Grow, We Grow!” was the theme created by ten students from South Tahoe High School who volunteered to create a presentation for the 2010 Project Learning Tree International Coordinator’s Conference in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Their project summarized a year-long PLT GreenWorks! service-learning project that involved over 1,700 students.

In the summer of 2007, the Angora Fire burned over 3,000 acres and 250 homes in South Lake Tahoe, California. This human-caused wildfire affected everyone in the local community. Government agencies, community organizations, schools, and students wanted to work together to help the forest return. 

In 2009, we had the opportunity to put these ideas into action. A PLT GreenWorks! grant in the amount of $4,880 helped the USDA Forest Service – Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, the Nevada Tahoe Conservation District (NTCD), and South Tahoe High School’s Generation Green Club conduct PLT workshops, provide in-class programs based on PLT activities, and organize a volunteer tree planting.

Local Club Plants Knowledge
Lake Tahoe is a world renowned destination, yet many children who grow up there are not connected to the outdoors. Formed in 2008 with the support of the Forest Service, Generation Green of South Lake Tahoe is a club dedicated to environmental stewardship. The club is primarily made up of students who were not previously connected with the outdoors or natural resource professions. 

The Club wanted to do something to help with the Angora Burn recovery. They needed safety equipment, such as hard hats, gloves, and tools. They needed educational supplies to teach the younger children about the value of forests. The GreenWorks! grant supplied these materials.  The next step was for the students to put their plan into action. A total of 35 Generation Green members attended an all day Project Learning Tree workshop. In addition to the students, 45 adults from the community were also certified in PLT to assist in the project.

After the students received their certificates, they were ready to visit elementary schools in Lake Tahoe Unified School District. The Generation Green students were teamed with experienced natural resource professionals, who are also PLT educators, to teach younger students about trees and forest conservation. Together they ensured that the environmental education programming met the California State Content Standards.

In the end, the Generation Green students reached 1,730 younger students. The elementary school students loved learning from the Generation Green students. Students leading students is so much more valuable. Not only did the younger ones learn so much better from high school students, but when the high school students taught, they learned better themselves. The Generation Green students learned a lot about the environment and their community, and they also gained role models and mentors through direct contact with natural resource professionals.

Teamwork in the Community
Next, the Forest Service and NTCD hosted a tree planting training for volunteer leaders. At this training, Generation Green members learned how to plant trees so they could teach the younger students the proper techniques. We received additional funds to bus 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders to the Angora Burn Site to participate in the planting. Under the leadership of Generation Green students, representatives from the Forest Service, TRCD, and NTCD, community volunteers, and 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders worked together to plant 1,500 trees at the Angora Burn site. Among the planting areas, homes were also being rebuilt and reconstructed. The community could see their neighborhood returning, along with the forest.

Over the next ten years, the partners will continue to work with local schools to monitor the seedlings’ survival and conduct maintenance on the trees as they grow.

A Presentation with a Standing Ovation
But the work for the Generation Green students did not end with the tree plantings!  In the spring of 2010, PLT chose Lake Tahoe as the site for its International Coordinator’s Conference. To showcase their work, ten Generation Green students began a video project on their personal growth and the Angora Fire. Countless hours of work and preparation resulted in a successful one-hour presentation for the general conference assembly, consisting of nearly 150 environmental educators from across the U.S. and Mexico. In addition, the Generation Green students prepared a break-out session on how to create a DVD with students, to share the lessons they learned.  

Christina Ramos, Generation Green Club President and DVD Production Team member, shares her thoughts, “We had very little knowledge on how to make a video. As we recorded segments,

As part of the conference, the Generation Green students led conference attendees on a field trip to assess the survival of the tree seedlings they had planted last year, and they modeled PLT activities, for example Activity 27 “Every Tree for Itself”, as examples of the educational programming they use to facilitate teaching younger students.

Another conference participant commented, “The visit to the fire burn site was outstanding. I loved all the student presentations both there and in the hotel.”

This GreenWorks! project integrated meaningful community service while educating the participants on forest health and management. PLT GreenWorks! grants focus on youth-led activities, so the Forest Service purposefully provided the high school students the opportunity to do something challenging, and it’s resulted in students gaining self-confidence, pride, knowledge, and experience. Through this project, students learned how to educate younger children about their environment, how to plant trees, how to create a DVD, and how to present a speech to a large group of professional educators. Although I’ve worked with these students for over two years, the growth I saw over the course of the Angora Burn Restoration and Community Education Project was unsurpassed. The title of their DVD, “Growth” is aptly named.

As a result of this project, two of the students who presented at the International Project Learning Tree conference were recognized and selected to attend the Outdoor Nation Youth Summit and Festival in Central Park, New York City (all expenses paid!) as Forest Service delegates. They had never traveled that far from Lake Tahoe before. Two other students were selected to be the mixed-media crew for the Generation Green Forest Service Summer Internship program. Four students were selected to be interpretive educators at Taylor Creek Visitor Center and the Tallac Historic Site. Two students were selected to work in Trail crew. One student was selected to assist with Public Affairs. This GreenWorks! project has given them a competitive edge for Forest Service jobs and on college applications. After working on such an intense project, in the middle of school midterms and family commitments, these students now have the confidence that they can do anything!

“We gained so much from Generation Green and truly have become leaders and role models for our community,” said Christina Ramos. “I used to think that Tahoe was just a boring town with nothing to do. But after working with Generation Green and Project Learning Tree, I now know that there are so many opportunities here.”

PHOTO 2: Generation Green Club members Saidy Enriquez, Reanna Suela, and Jair Jaimes from the South Tahoe High School, along with high school teacher Maria Luquin, conduct a lesson during the Project Learning Tree training. A total of 80 people were certified in PLT, including 35 student leaders.

PHOTO 3: Generation Green member Cristina Ramos teaches 5th grade Bijou elementary students how to measure the height of a tree.

Butterfly Gardens Come to Life

The annual migration of monarch butterflies is an “endangered natural phenomenon.”  Every year, millions of these tiny travelers migrate thousands of miles from the United States and Canada to spend the winter months in Mexico. This yearly move has made monarchs dependent on conservation of habitats in all three countries.

Through the MonarchLIVE program, Project Learning Tree and its partners promoted monarch education and supported the creation of places for butterflies to find nourishment and rest during their impressive journey.


“Creation to Migration” garden in Athens, Ohio

One such garden is West Elementary School’s “Creation to Migration” garden in Athens, Ohio. Students and teachers partnered with Master Gardeners of Athens County and Wayne National Forest to create a learning laboratory on the school grounds.

Students were involved in every stage of creation, including researching native plants and pollinators and designing, planning, and planting of the garden.

After their summer vacation, students returned to school in September to find that the seedlings planted in June had grown and were active with pollinators – especially monarchs.

The school brought in monarch chrysalises so the students could witness the butterfly life cycle, which ended in a wonderful classroom moment when a monarch emerged right in front of the students’ eyes.


“If you plant it, they will come” in Coral Springs, Florida

“If you plant it, they will come” was the theme for Sawgrass Springs Environmental Magnet Middle School’s garden in Coral Springs, Florida.

Their butterfly-shaped garden had a 70-foot wide wingspan, complete with hand painted butterfly-shaped pavers running through the middle and seven-foot tall antennae at the head.

The garden has become not only a place for monarchs to find respite but has also provided a unique learning opportunity for students.

The middle school now holds Environmental Field Days called “Green Days” to teach students about environmental issues. When they reach the butterfly garden, students learn about biodiversity and habitat conservation. “Student learning has been enhanced beyond belief,” exclaimed JoAnn Cantlupe, Sawgrass Springs Environmental Science Magnet Coordinator.

Additionally, butterfly education was also transferred to family and friends when all of the club members built their own wooden butterfly house to take home.


“Butterfly Haven for the 21st Century” in Woodland Park, Colorado

Another impressive place for monarch refuge is a modest fenced garden in front of Gateway Elementary School in Woodland Park, Colorado.

It is a “Butterfly Haven for the 21st Century” where 18 third, fourth, and fifth graders planted lupin, purple coneflowers, bee balm, asters, ornamental grasses, and small shrubs.

Creating the garden was part of the Junior Master Gardeners (JMG) program, which the school was able to start as part of their GreenWorks grant funding.

Through the JMG program, students learned different curriculum topics including the butterfly life cycle, soil properties, plants and their different nutrient needs, along with what insects eat and how they find shelter in the different plants. The JMG students have a strong sense of ownership over the garden and are eager to maintain it for students and butterflies to enjoy for years to come.



MonarchLIVE is a partnership between Project Learning Tree, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Prince William Network. In 2009, 16 schools from all over the United States received Project Learning Tree GreenWorks grants to develop butterfly gardens in their school yards and communities. For more information, lesson plans, and resources please visit http://monarch.pwnet.org/.

Leadership, Teamwork, and Volunteerism Learned through PLT Activities

Project Learning Tree activities great for teaching science concepts. They are excellent tools to teach life skills. We incorporated PLT activities in a summer leadership camp in Hahira, Georgia, and students learned valuable life lessons about leadership, teamwork, and volunteerism.


A cross-section of a tree, or “tree cookie,” shows patterns of change in a tree’s life as well as changes in the area where it grows.  This is one way to learn about tree growth. Students participated in PLT Activity 76 “Tree Cookies where they examined tree cross-sections to infer environmental conditions that may have affected the tree. 

Students took the lessons learned in this activity and applied it to their own lives. They used crayons and paper plates to create their personal “tree cookies” to represent key elements of their own growth.  

Then, students were challenged to continue growing by reaching out to members of their community.  The students decided to express thanks to local leaders who provide essential community services.  They walked to banks, the police station, the fire station, and city hall and distributed fresh baked “tree cookies” as they thanked members of the community for their service. 

In this project, students also took the initiative to ask community members about their personal growth experiences. They learned that these civic leaders were once children too, with their careers beginning in the classroom.  During one visit, Hahira City Manager, Jonathon Sumner shared with the students the following advice:  “Leadership, like respect, is earned not given.”


Students learned about teamwork through PLT Activity 63 “Tree Factory.”  In this activity, students became better acquainted with tree parts and their functionality by acting them out.  Together, students represented heartwood supporting, xylem and phloem transporting, roots absorbing, leaves photosynthesizing, and bark protecting. 

Ben, a sixth grader commented, “When we were doing the tree factory, we had to work together.  Even though we didn’t have the same jobs, everyone’s job was important to keep the tree alive.”


We used Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and PLT Activity 13 “We All Need Trees” to introduce the concept of volunteerism to students. In this activity, students learned about the many different products we get from trees. They also learned to “give” as they began to understand the many benefits that trees provide. 

To show the giving capacity of students, 20 camp participants volunteered at the local food bank. The students worked in teams to sort and organize food donations.  They learned that they were a part of a larger organization that provides over 7,400 meals each week to the hungry in the local area, just as single trees work in concert to provide forest benefits.

Beyond the Camp

When the camp youth participated in a hands-on, fun, theme-based learning environment, they gained valuable skills to become future leaders.

After camp, we followed up with some of the participants. Several of them had begun volunteering with “Terrific Tuesdays,” a children’s program in Hahira, Georgia.  These young leaders were role models as they presented PLT Activity 27 “Every Tree for Itself and PLT Activity 63 Tree Factory.” 

Watching these young leaders interact with the younger children as they taught them about trees was proof that PLT is just the resource to teach life skills.