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.  

“Green Teens” Lead Nature-Based Activities at Local Museum

Teen volunteers are the core of an innovative program at the Long Island Children’s Museum in Nassau County, New York. Thanks to a Project Learning Tree GreenWorks! grant, the “Green Teens” program launched in the summer of 2009 to increase children’s exposure to natural learning environments at an early age.

Green Teens Goals

To make the Green Teens program successful, we worked with local schools to recruit and train teens as volunteer museum educators.  The teens developed and presented interactive nature and science programming for children and adults visiting the museum. 

That first summer, Green Teens focused on the museum’s outdoor exhibit, Our Backyard. This exhibit was designed to help visitors discover the wonders of nature and the environment that can be found outside their own backdoor through hands-on learning.

The goals of the Green Teens program are to:

  • recruit and train local teenagers to work as volunteer outdoor educators
  • assist teens in developing and implementing “green” themed programming for children
  • introduce current museum volunteers into outdoor programming
  • offer daily two-hour interactive outdoor nature-based programs for visiting children and families during the summer months.

The objectives for the program included developing leadership and teaching skills in local teenagers, encouraging volunteerism, and providing increased learning opportunities focused on the natural world.

Modeling Service Learning

The beauty of the project was that it provided an opportunity to employ circular training and teaching methods. Museum education staff members were responsible for teaching and training the high school teenagers – a previously untapped audience for this depth of programming.  Then, the teen volunteers were charged with using what they had learned to lead education programs with visiting children.

We used the service-learning model of combining meaningful community service with a deeper level of instruction to produce an enriched learning experience for the teens. It also encouraged them to pass on what they’ve learned to the next generation of children. Our hope is that the teens’ leadership experiences will translate into meaningful community engagement, both now and in later life.

Planning and Preparation

Each year, the children’s museum receives hundreds of applications from teens for about 30 summer general volunteer positions such as ticket takers, gallery attendants and assistant educators.

For the Green Teens project, our Volunteer Manager worked with the Education Department to determine the specific qualities we sought from students that would be selected for this special project. Criteria included an interest and appreciation of the natural world and the motivation to learn teaching strategies, lesson planning, and program development. Ten students from diverse backgrounds and locations from Long Island were chosen to participate.

As part of the GreenWorks! grant, the teen volunteers and museum staff participated in a Project Learning Tree workshop focusing on outdoor learning and environmental education. The PLT facilitators took us through several fun and engaging PLT curriculum activities that the teens used to develop their own programming. 

After an exciting two-week training process, the teen volunteers conducted daily workshops that had been planned by the museum’s education team. The first two  workshops (in a series of 11) were done this way to allow time for staff to model programming techniques and lead the volunteers through the lesson planning process.

Once the volunteers felt comfortable planning and implementing programs, they were given research time to plan and develop their own workshop with guidance from trained museum staff.

The teens developed short workshops with both an informational component and a hands-on, take-home activity for children between the ages of three and 12.  With this age range, they were challenged to create appropriate activity variations in the finished project.

We were thrilled to see what the volunteers came up with! Using their new training, research, and their own personal backgrounds, the Green Teens developed fascinating nature-based programs for our visiting audience.

Engaging the Community

The Green Teens led museum visitors in making crafts like grass heads, sun catchers, and model dragon flies. Students played hopscotch with their own handmade bean bags, made and raced origami boats, flew whirligigs, planted seeds, learned about birds, and decorated wooden animals.

One of the most fun collaborative projects was to have kids make salsa with vegetables picked from the museum’s garden and then they learned to dance salsa.

The Green Teens project brought Our Backyard gallery alive with wonderful, innovative programs. And, the teen volunteers learned so much from the experience:

“All in all the experience was great. In order to teach the kids, we had to learn about the subject ourselves. This aided in our own education. I know that some of this information will help in high school classes. This experience was wonderful for me because it was real work experience and that is something no money can buy.”  – Krystin Sinclair, teen participant, age 15

“I really loved volunteering in the Long Island Children’s Museum. It definitely opened my eyes to something new, just like the Green Teens opened the children’s eyes to something new every week. I have absolutely loved working with kids this summer and I am sad that it is coming to an end because this experience has been so much fun. Thanks for letting me be a part of it!”  – Brittany Cassandra, teen participant, age 19

“I honestly could not think of a more gratifying and enjoyable summer experience. Who wouldn’t want to watch the bright, shining faces of children who just learned how to salsa dance…or kids running to their parents yelling, “Look! I made origami!” The experience and delight I have gotten out of being a Green Teen will never be replaced. I have learned so much about working with other people which, though sometimes very challenging, is also quite rewarding. But more importantly, I have learned so much about myself.”  – Eliza Feldman, teen participant, age 17

The Our Backyard exhibition has received awards from the Association of Children’s Museums, the Met Life Foundation, and the Arbor Day and Dimensions Educational Research Foundations for its ability and commitment to furthering outdoor education.  The Long Island Children’s Museum is grateful to Project Learning Tree for collaborating with the Museum on a project that continues to have a positive impact on both our community and our environment.

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.