Outdoor Class Inspires Young Students to Protect Environment

August 2, 2023

Education majors from Eastern Washington University are taking Cheney Middle School students outside for class, and it’s not just because of the seasonal weather. They’re focused on teaching the young pupils how to make a lasting impact on the environment.

The annual wetland restoration project, which happens during the fall and spring quarters, is supported by EWU preservice teachers and education major volunteers who do hands-on work with 150-200 middle schoolers.

“The kids absolutely love it,” says alumna Shanti Finley, who earned a master’s degree in 2020 and teaches science and math to 7th graders at Cheney Middle School. “It is such an amazing opportunity for students to get out and experience real-world situations that are happening around them,” adds Finley.

The project, part of EWU School of Education’s Natural Resource Capstone, was launched in the fall of 2016 – resulting in nearly 6,000 native trees and shrubs planted along three miles of wetland and riparian habitat not far from the Cheney campus.

Kathryn Baldwin, EdD, associate professor and co-organizer of the project, says that the EWU students are gaining authentic experience while making a positive impact for the environment.

“They’re pretty enthusiastic about being able to work directly with the middle school students and being able to work in an outdoor classroom,” says Baldwin.

Kathryn Baldwin, EdD, (far right) and team on location at wetland and riparian habitat

The overall project – dubbed the Outdoor Environmental Education Partnership (OEEP) – was developed by Baldwin and Lance Potter, PhD, associate professor, both from the School of Education, in partnership with Cheney Middle School, the Lands Council, and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program offered through the US Fish and Wildlife Service at Turnbull Wildlife Refuge.

Kat Hall, restoration program director for The Lands Council, says the partnership is a “quadruple win” because it melds on-ground restoration with educating the next generation and training future teachers in outdoor leadership. “By planting native trees and shrubs, kids have a direct, immediate, and tangible impact on water quality and wildlife habitat. At the same time, we empower them with an understanding of – and appreciation for – the natural world,” says Hall, adding that they hope the project promotes environmental stewardship and ecological sustainability.

Baldwin says participating partners determined in meetings early-on that they have shared goals. For instance, both EWU and Cheney Middle School educators wanted a hands-on outdoor experience where students learned environmental stewardship while also making a difference.

The OEEP project features yearlong curriculum for middle school students taught by EWU pre-service teachers – the very teachers who will go on to teach pre-kindergarten through 12 grades after graduating.

Last fall, EWU students kicked off the annual project by visiting Cheney Middle School and using a tabletop watershed model to teach students about stream banks, also known as riparian buffer zones.

Middle schoolers learned that trees and shrubs provide shade for the creek, which, in turn, lowers water temperatures and is good for aquatic life. The plantings also provide habitat for wildlife and stabilize soil along the stream, while also filtering pollutants and reducing erosion.

After learning about the benefits of the project, the group went to a privately owned section of Marshall Creek and planted 1,000 trees.

When spring came around, The Lands Council and Partners in Fish and Wildlife Program trained EWU’s future educators to use equipment to collect data on chemical indicators, such as turbidity, temperature, pH and dissolved oxygen, as well as physical indicators of stream health like macroinvertebrate life.  EWU students then led small groups of middle schoolers on a return visit to the planting site, where they conducted water testing and searched for little critters to determine the impact of their restoration work.

“The students get really excited about that. They get to find all kinds of invertebrates in the water,” says Finley, adding that kids used microscopes and charts to identify the creatures.

Finley says her students love working with EWU’s future educators.

Baldwin echoes the sentiment, saying this overwhelmingly positive early teaching experience has influenced the career trajectory of several EWU students.

“Those students immediately started applying for middle school positions because they found it so engaging with students of that age,” Baldwin says.