Middle School Students Lead Stream Restoration Project

The Matanuska Susitna Borough in Alaska, where Wasilla is located, is the fastest growing region in the state with a population increase of 50% in the last ten years. This growth has impacted the Little Susitna River, which has one of the largest salmon runs in the area but is currently under consideration for “threatened” status by the EPA.

Mike Shea and I are seventh-grade teachers at Teeland Middle School and we direct the “River Rangers” program. Its goals are to provide students meaningful science instruction, along with opportunities to conduct and share scientific research, and join with their community in hands-on service-learning projects that help preserve local salmon streams.

The GreenWorks process

Several years ago, I applied for and received a GreenWorks! grant from Project Learning Tree.  The funding enabled over 200 students to participate in five full-day watershed investigations during the school year and implement a stream restoration project.  Students were accompanied by numerous teachers, parents, Wasilla Soil and Water Conservation District staff, and other natural resource agency personnel.  

Initially, students studied stream ecology in a classroom setting.  In late August through mid-September, they visited different stream sites to establish baseline data and monitor water quality by:

  • sampling macroinvertebrate populations as bio-indicators of stream health
  • monitoring water temperature (currently a major concern)
  • measuring the stream flow in cubic meters/second at each site, determining the potential impact on water quality and riparian habitat
  • assessing pH, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity levels, linking these to natural and man-made factors.

Students returned to the stream sites in the spring to gather additional data and posted their findings to an online database organized by the University of Alaska. We then identified one site to implement a streamside restoration project, a popular “party spot” on the Little Susitna River.  It’s noted for its garbage and eroding stream banks caused by vehicles being driven too close, or even across the river.

In late May, students implemented the stream restoration project over a period of several days.  They collected several truckloads of garbage, filled vehicle ruts, and installed protective matting to prevent erosion from pedestrian traffic.  They hauled topsoil, planted willow shoots and other stabilizing vegetation to anchor the soil, and moved in large logs to discourage further abuse of the site.  In preparation for the revegetation project, our students had harvested dormant willow cuttings at the Alaska Plant Materials Center.  Wasilla Soil and Water Conservation District helped with many of the logistics, such as procuring the necessary permits for the revegetation effort, and leading groups of students in streamside work. 

During the school year, we logged over 1,000 student field days—keystone educational experiences—thanks to the Project Learning Tree GreenWorks! grant. 

Students performed better on tests after participating

We used a short test to give us a glimpse of student learning.  Students were given the test at the beginning of the year, and then again at the end of the year.  Fifty-nine percent of students showed a 40% or more increase in their score, and 92% of students showed an increase in their score of 10% or more.

Student scores on the annual Alaska Standards-Based Assessment indicate significant growth.  The River Rangers Program is integral to our 7th grade instructional model, and we believe it enhances student interest and performance in all subject areas.  For example, 80% of 7th graders were “proficient” in math, an increase of 9% from their previous 6th grade year. 

Student reflections show a change in attitude and perspective

Students were also assessed in the field using journals.  Students’ written reflections at the end of the project provide a clear picture of the learning that took place, not only in knowledge of specific content, but also in change of attitude and perspective.  The student journal entries below clearly illustrate this: 

“Some people will trash a river and everything.  To be honest, I was one of those people, until this year.  Because now I know how much effort is put into revegetating all the areas. Now I think twice.” –Cory H.

“I feel differently about the riparian zone……so I probably won’t ride four-wheelers in it anymore.” –Grant G.

“After learning about stream ecology, I see the stream and riparian zone as more than just flowing water and some plants.  I see them as something precious and important.” –Stephanie M.

 “I think that what we are doing is making a huge difference in the health of our streams, and it has been an experience of a lifetime.” –Kelsey H.

Plans for the future

We hope to continue to improve science content knowledge and process skills among our students through the Teeland Middle School River Rangers Program.  Equally important are our goals to increase students’ enthusiasm for science, their interest in pursuing science higher education coursework and careers, and their appreciation of local salmon stream habitat as a resource that should remain intact for future generations.



Tips for Organizing Service-Learning Projects in Your School

I was thrilled to receive a GreenWorks! grant from Project Learning Tree to help create a schoolyard habitat, part of an outdoor classroom at Valley Springs Elementary School in Arkansas. My third and fourth grade gifted and talented students designed and developed the project to provide food, water, cover and nesting areas to attract wildlife to their school grounds.

The professional development I obtained from state resources was invaluable and guided me in the right direction. I attended several workshops, and each time I came away with valuable ideas from both trainers and other teacher participants. I have received curriculum manuals from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC), Project Learning Tree, and Projects WET/WILD, along with training on how to incorporate them in our outdoor classroom. The manuals are full of engaging activities that my students really enjoy.

As I reflect on the journey that we have taken together to create this schoolyard habitat, there are things I learned along the way that may be useful to other schools wanting to undertake a similar project.

Research Similar Projects

If possible, visit a schoolyard habitat site or another project that’s similar to what you’ll undertake. Depending on the size and complexity of your project, it is important to have firsthand knowledge wherever possible.

I was not aware of a schoolyard project in my area so I visited the nearby Fred Berry Conservation Center. I made notes about what I saw planted around their facilities and where they placed identification markers.

Planning and Prioritizing is Critical

The most challenging part of the project for us was getting so many funds and donations all at once. We received four of the five grants we applied for, which allowed us to add a greenhouse with a garden area, a water feature, and a bird blind to our schoolyard habitat. In addition, we received donations of materials, labor, and equipment for a retainer wall next to the greenhouse.

As the project coordinator, I had to prioritize installations according to how much space a backhoe and tractor would need to move in our compacted area and avoid damage to the trees we had planted. Waiting on other construction projects to be completed drastically altered our original schedule.

Form a Committee

I formed a committee of teachers, students, school administrators, parents, and community partner volunteers to help implement this project. It truly was a community-wide effort.

Community partners helped with the heavy work that our elementary children could not do, such as lifting and setting boulders in place and carving wooden animals.

The school’s maintenance staff helped with utility layout, and provided a tractor and dolly to help move the boulders.

One parent, Dawn Mathis, worked hard to promote what we are doing. She set the date for our dedication event with the school administration and coordinated the catering of food and beverages.

So that everything runs smoothly, we schedule a volunteer work day a week before the dedication event.

Enlist the Help of Community Volunteers

So far, we’ve had over 30 community members help us with our schoolyard habitat project. Ten volunteers helped plan the mini forest, guided students during tree planting, and made sure students helped water the young trees regularly. Several volunteers donated boulders and rocks to create a bluff-like structure for a simulated bear habitat, while others provided logs and branches to create a mock beaver dam.

Get Guidance from Professionals

Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance from professionals who might be able to offer assistance. Getting the opinions and guidance from professionals has helped put our project on the path to success.

For example, we enlisted the help of a local landscape designer, Starlinda Saunders, to create a professional set of plans for us to use during the grant writing process. These have been very useful for inventory purposes, in our public relations efforts, and for future planning.

Another example: I had planned on installing a solar pump for our water feature, but later learned that its capacity was not big enough for the size of our pond and it would have only produced a trickle for a waterfall.  Knowing this ahead of time helped us alter our budget accordingly and purchase the right equipment.

If you need help selecting native plantings in your area, seek out assistance from your state organizations.  I spoke often with personnel from our local forestry agencies and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

Involve Students in all Aspects

To date, 36 elementary gifted students have participated in designing and developing their schoolyard habitat in a vacant area measuring 64’ x 95’. They divided up the area to incorporate multiple components.

One student, Mercedes Youngblood, started the plans for our mini woodland forest when she was a third grader and has since been very active in the project. She and her fellow students helped plan where to plant the trees and place the carved wooden animals. Last year, they planted five trees and watered them during the summer. This year, as soon as the ground thawed, they planted five more. Mercedes is now a fifth grader and she is working with several other students on a woodland forest mural that will be unveiled during our dedication ceremony.

Publicize Your Project

Publicizing the project isn’t just about sharing your story, it’s also a great opportunity for the students to develop their leadership and public speaking skills.

We’ve had several opportunities to publicize our project, and the students were an integral part of sharing our story:

  • A local journalist wrote a story about our schoolyard habitat. Students answered questions about the different components they were working on.
  • Our local newspaper is sending a reporter to our “Learning on Parade” night. In addition to preparing for interviews from those journalists, they wrote letters to Members of Congress to invite them to the event. The goal is for them to to see first-hand the benefits of outdoor and environmental education.
  • Students are preparing to present their project to the Kiwanis Club members to share their story.

Be Prepared for the Unexpected

Our dedication event for the schoolyard habitat project happened a full year later than expected. Illness, flooding, and a snow/ice storm that cut off almost all electricity this year were things I hadn’t anticipated. We rarely miss school due to inclement weather, so I never expected to be out of school so long. The important lesson here is to be patient and keep the project moving forward despite any obstacles you might encounter!

Use PLT’s GreenWorks! Guide

Use Project Learning Tree’s GreenWorks! guide throughout your project. It’s a great tool to help your team organize your project.

Good luck and, most of all, have fun!!

High School Students Lead Island Clean-Up Project

St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, has a rich culture and colorful history. St. Croix has a fluctuating population, due to tourism and migrant workers from nearby islands and the mainland who come to work at St. Croix’s oil refinery – one of the largest in the western hemisphere. 

Litter is a pandemic problem on St. Croix. Data from a recent coastal cleanup showed litter comes from a variety of sources—residential, business, commercial, and industrial.  Much of the responsibility for protecting and preserving the island’s natural surroundings falls to St. Croix’s citizens.  Involving business leaders, homeowners, and community leaders in waste management is crucial to the island’s future.

“Everyone knows litter is a problem on the island, everyone talks about it and notices it,” says Leslie Hamdorf, a volunteer organizer for community events in Frederiksted.  “Litter devalues the area and sends the message that more trash is okay, but it clogs up our already stressed sewer system, and is a hazard to both people and animals.”

Leslie works with Central High School’s environmental club, Nature’s Environmental Role Model (NERM).  The thirty 10th-12th grade students that make up NERM had volunteered during the 2006-2007 school year at beach and roadside cleanups around St. Croix. Still, they wanted to take a more proactive role and become community leaders themselves.  With the help of a Project Learning Tree (PLT) GreenWorks! grant, the NERM team organized a series of “Service Saturdays.”  These community service days combined a litter clean-up with environmental activities and lessons from Project Learning Tree. 

The GreenWorks! project began with students and community volunteers working together to decorate trash bins with environmental logos, lessons, and quick facts.  The bins, paint and paint supplies were all donated by local businesses. 

Then, on a series of Saturday Service Days, NERM students conducted hands-on educational activities with other school-age students.  The high school students led litter cleanups for the younger, elementary and middle school-aged participants.  They also used the new trash bins and litter from trash clean-ups to demonstrate appropriate handling of different types of waste such as potentially hazardous materials, recyclable materials and oversized items. 

All the students cleaned up and set up trash bins along Frederiksted’s beach front and other public areas. They coordinated with the town to arrange for trash collection and removal. The town of Frederiksted is an important partner in this project as they are an essential ally in making sure the trash bins are regularly and appropriately emptied and maintained. 

The NERM team plans to donate a second set of bins to the town of Christiansted and organize similar community service days coupled with litter clean-ups and PLT activities.

“It is active and it is recycling made fun,” said NERM student Ilan Rivera.  “I have a good time getting out there and getting dirty to keep our island clean, but sometimes it is frustrating when we return and it is trashed again.”

Leslie Hamdorf notes that “The small group teaching allowed students to demonstrate leadership abilities to both adults and their peers.  By equipping each student with specific knowledge and skills about environmental degradation, coupled with a tool to alleviate it, the students could manipulate teaching words into their language and then share it with the younger students.” 

Leslie also said that the Service Saturdays improved student speaking skills and self confidence.  “Through this project, students had opportunities to make mistakes, ask questions, teach something new, and practice what they learned.”  At the close of each Service Saturday, students participated in a self reflection to assess and evaluate their personal and project progress.

The “Take the Trash Out” GreenWorks! project exemplifies service learning by incorporating academic curricula with hands-on activities that benefit the St. Croix island community and local environment.  The project involved youth of various ages in a community service activity that provided more needed places to conveniently discard waste and encouraged others to take pride in their community.

As for Leslie, she has started a new project—a “Say No to Plastic Bags” campaign with the 10th grade class at Good Hope School in Fredriksted.

Overcoming Fears About Teaching Outside: One Teacher’s Story

MN-Bay View Elementary School-Rob Marohn-leading students on hiking trailI’ve come a long way in my journey as a fifth grade teacher. I used to be stressed out about taking kids outside, but now I look forward to doing it every day. Along the way, my skills in instruction, classroom management, and curricular understanding have grown, and so have the projects themselves.

In my college experience, they scare you about liability, litigation, and student safety. Amidst all of this, how could I teach in the outdoors? On top of it all, I couldn’t name a single tree out there!

Despite my fears, one thing drove me forward: my personal memories of the forest from my early years and all the things I learned there. Some of the more non-traditional settings were the places I learned the most! I had to become a competent educator who used the outdoors as a classroom.

Teaching outside is a natural for my school. Bay View Elementary is located near the boreal forest of northern Minnesota.  We have a beautiful 40-acre School Forest that is now enrolled in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ “School Forest Program.”  This was an unused resource before I came to Bay View.

My very first time teaching a class outside still sticks with me. I had them partner up – one person stayed behind on the lawn and the other student ventured into the forest to collect items for a nature mobile.  My rule: the children must stay within sight of their partner. If they went too far into the forest, they were to sit down and start yelling and I would come and rescue them. No rescues were necessary! I was stressed out tremendously, but the children had a lot of fun and I experienced the value of teaching outdoors.

A Buddy Program With Younger Students

MN-Bay View Elementary School-Rob Marohn-students looking at logInitially, most of my formal outdoor lessons were either from Project Learning Tree or Project WET.  Much of the content was new to me, but these wonderful lessons are very well written, easily taught, and fun for the students. I implemented a “Buddy Program” to spread the learning to younger students at our school.

One of the things we did was visit a kindergarten class once a week. Most days, we hiked through the School Forest together. During these walks, my fifth grade students showed the kindergartners what they learned about in the forest. By listening to how the fifth graders explained what they learned to the younger students, I learned a lot about how I could improve.

Gathering Supplies for Teaching Outdoors

I’ve commandeered a school storage room and filled it with equipment that I’ve scrounged, bought with grant money, or found from other sources. This equipment includes full classroom sets of hip waders and snowshoes, essential for exploring the forest throughout the year. 

An After-School Forest Club

I started an after-school club for all grades because I wanted everyone to experience playing and learning together outside in our own School Forest. For our first activity we played Capture the Flag and invited students and their parents to come and play. We had a lot of fun!

The after-school club allowed us to get comfortable using our “outdoor classroom.” The students and parents who attended the after-school events developed a lighter attitude: they were there to have fun and that made for better students.

Learning Beyond the Classroom

Beyond the classroom setting, my friend David McNamee and I worked together to organize camping trips for kids and parents.  Our first overnight camping trip took place in our School Forest.  You don’t need a school forest for an outdoor overnight experience – just a playground or outdoor space.  We cooked dinner, played games, tracked wildlife, and gave the families an experience they will remember for a long time.

Since then, I’ve taken students and parents on two-night stays at an environmental learning center. Dave and I have also taken parents and students on wilderness canoe trips in northern Minnesota. These trips not only include the basics of camping, but also include journalling, lessons from Project Learning Tree, and an understanding of aquatic habitat and fire ecology. Each time we do one of these educational outdoor trips, I learn more myself.

MN-Bay View Elementary School-Rob Marohn-kindergarten students explore birch treeNew Opportunities for Outdoor Experiences

More teachers are participating in the Buddy Program because it’s a great entry-level opportunity for environmental education experiences. The School Forest Club has prospered, and a couple of naturalists come to conduct more formal after-school programs. Soon we will be adding an additional 93-acre tract to our School Forest that our municipality has given the school district. Finally, we have just completed a summer Urban Wilderness Camp for the children of our area.

This year, the first group of kindergarten students we brought outside are now in fifth grade. As my comfort level using the outdoor classroom has grown, I think I am finally ready for the plunge: this year I hope to take my class outside every day as part of their instruction (rain, shine, and Northern Minnesota cold). It has taken time to get here, but it has sure been fun. The key all along has been to just get outside and let the rest take care of itself.

Students Convert Bus to Run on Biodiesel to Reduce Emissions

UT-City Academy-Biodiesel1Our school bus ran over 3,000 miles last year on biodiesel—fuel the students made themselves in science class as part of an environmental learning project.

Students started discussing alternative fuels while studying global warming and pollution.  That’s when they came up with the idea of making their own biodiesel fuel from used vegetable oil for our school bus to reduce our school’s CO2 emissions. We received a start-up grant from Toshiba, followed by a GreenWorks grant from Project Learning Tree to continue the service-learning project and share it with others.

Fifteen students in the green school committee and more than 30 other students at City Academy in Salt Lake City made over 250 gallons of fuel from used vegetable oil collected from a local restaurant.  The school bus shuttled students to the nearby mountain, a green demonstration house, a local recycling facility, on dozens of field trips for various classes, and even to an environmental youth conference in Los Angeles. 


Learning by doing

Students were in charge of soliciting used vegetable oil donations, working with the Health Department to adhere to qualifications for oil collection, collecting the oil, making the fuel, filling the bus, and doing outreach and presentations to other groups about biodiesel.  They get real, hands-on applications of chemistry and biology concepts.  They learned mechanical skills as they maintained the bus and the biodiesel processor. They honed their math skills as they calculate recipes for biodiesel. They also practiced reading, writing, and editing from making and distributing promotional materials.

UT-City Academy-Biodiesel2Students designed a PowerPoint presentation and a hands-on demonstration that they took to four local schools and four conferences.  Sharing their work with others and showing off their accomplishments helped them realize what a unique and powerful project this was.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the year was our summer Breakout trip to Los Angeles.  We were invited to present at a Green Ambassadors conference where we met some leading scientists and biofuels experts—and got free tickets to the movie premier of the environmental documentary, The Eleventh Hour.


Students became the experts

UT-City Academy-Biodiesel3Throughout the project, students served as biodiesel experts, not just to their peers but also to other teachers and scientists interested in this alternative fuel.  They debated the merits of various alternative fuels, learned the ins and outs of making biodiesel, and, best of all, participated in a project that is making a difference in Salt Lake City’s air quality.  Chemistry and environmental science both became more innovative, hands-on subjects to the students who were involved in this project and they gained new skills and knowledge.

The local community has been very helpful and supportive, especially our volunteer mechanics and the Health Department who helped us set up a safe and legal biodiesel lab. 

The bus itself was a bit challenging at times (we go through a lot of fuel filters!), but support from the community and funds from GreenWorks helped keep the project going.  Air quality is one of Salt Lake City’s biggest environmental concerns and the project proved to be an excellent way to give students a chance to do hands-on science and get them involved in a local environmental issue.  It has helped them see that even though there are some big and daunting problems in our world today, they can make a difference.

Learning on the Tree Farm and in the Classroom

ID-Jane Thornes1Looking back, I realize that my appreciation for the outdoors, the need to learn about nature, and a yearning to take better care of our environment, stems from the way I was raised.  My family spent a lot of time outdoors, and we grew up with respect for the world around us. 

Even though my family’s home was located in the city, my free time was spent mostly along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin.  We climbed bluffs, explored caves, and hiked through valleys near our home.  My hunger for knowledge was insatiable; I remember wanting to learn the name of every tree, bird, and flower.

Now, as an adult, my husband and I manage a 270-acre Tree Farm in north Idaho.  I still have the desire to identify all the plants and animals we see.


My introduction to PLT

I first became introduced to PLT when I was volunteering as a Girl Scout troop leader.  A pair of facilitators led a mini PLT workshop as part of a larger, educational training course.  Immediately I was hooked. 

The easy-to-follow approach that PLT uses to educate young minds is smart, refreshing, and fun.  Several years later, once I became a classroom teacher, I could hardly wait to enroll in a full 15-hour workshop.  With more PLT training under my belt, I wanted to share the activities not only with students, but with other educators, as well.  I became a trained facilitator and to date have conducted more than 20 PLT workshops.


PLT on the tree farm

Many different school classes, Girl Scout troops, Boy Scout troops, and church groups visit our tree farm. 

My husband and I offer them a variety of outdoor experiences. We’ve found that PLT provides a wonderful assortment of activities for such an occasion.  As an annual tradition, I take my fourth grade students on a field trip to our forest, where we can explore, study, and nurture the nature that surrounds us.

One year after using various PLT activities, such as “Name that Tree,” “Looking at Leaves,” “Tree Factory,” “Peppermint Beetle,” and “Invasive Species,” my 4th graders gained a better understanding of the different parts of trees and the different species found in our area.  They then took part in gathering scientific data for the United States Forest Service about sub alpine and grand firs that were being harmed by the balsam woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect.  (Read more about this by visiting Every Student Learns Outside.)


PLT in the classroom

ID-Jane Thornes5Our elementary school participated in “National Environmental Education Week.”  Each day had a different theme—earth, sky, water, and energy—and Friday was “Celebrate Earth Day!” A staff committee put together packets of activities for teachers to choose from to use in their classrooms.  Each theme (earth, sky, water, and energy) had multiple PLT activities to choose from.

For our “Celebrate Earth Day,” guest speakers addressed the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students.  Students rotated through six stations that had different hands-on, educational activities that afternoon.  The Tree Station used PLT’s “Tree Cookies” and “We All Need Trees;” the Insect Station had “Invasive Species” and “Trees in Trouble;” and the Garden Station used the background information from “How Plants Grow.” 

From sharing with students how to care for flowers and plant seeds, to calculating the age of a tree, the PLT activities used during the week offered students a chance to not only directly experience nature, but also to form life-long relationships with it – all in a learning environment.  Our students gained a wealth of knowledge that week, simply because the lessons had an environmental emphasis and the learning was hands-on.


Future plans

ID-Jane Thornes4My dream is to continue sharing knowledge about the environment with both young people and adults through a science school or nature center on our tree farm.  Such a venue would provide a perfect location for PLT and other professional development workshops.

I hope to begin with a simple classroom, but eventually expand our facilities to resemble something of a nature camp, where lodging would provide us the opportunity to host overnight workshops and trainings.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the group you share PLT with is large or small.  What is important is sharing the information available.  All PLT activities are well researched and planned.  Often we find ourselves using the same activities over and over, but I encourage you to explore the PLT PreK-8 Guide, utilize the appendices and indices to make the most of this invaluable resource. 

Branch out and try some new activities.  You’ll find they give variety and and excitement to your teaching and your students’ learning.