Students from Quilcene School District with Preserve Manager Carrie Clendaniel at Snow Creek Forest Preserve.
On a dewy morning at our Snow Creek Forest Preserve last week, 17 eighth-grade students from Quilcene School District (QSD) were knee-deep in a swath of thick reed canarygrass — a noxious weed. By day’s end, when the sun was high in the sky, they’d journeyed far up the hillside into a healthy forest, where they observed the plants, animals, and characteristics that make up a robust natural ecosystem, in contrast to the reed canarygrass-dominated site below.
With this knowledge, they will launch into a 4-week ecosystem science unit in class, followed by additional trips to Snow Creek Forest Preserve. The students’ work will culminate in designing and implementing their own restoration project at the weed-dominated restoration site — taking on the role of restoration ecologists.
Students began their day at the restoration site.
The day’s activities were the first phase of a pilot program, called Youth Ecology Education through Restoration (YEER) from the Washington Native Plant Society (WPNS), that combines science learning in the classroom with ecosystem restoration planning and action on students’ local lands. On this first day, Quilcene students were led by four educators representing three organizations: Janneke Petersen, from WNPS; Carrie Clendaniel, Preserve Manager at Jefferson Land Trust; Jeff Taylor, QSD Secondary Science Teacher; and Justin Lake, QSD Education Enrichment Coordinator. Future site visits or field trips later this school year will also include WNPS volunteer stewards.
“I’m really excited to get kids out of the school building and into the outdoors, learning about their local ecosystems and how they can actually contribute to improving the area that they live in,” said Jeff. “When this program came along, it was a natural thing to jump aboard.”
Students observed the healthy ecosystem at Snow Creek Forest Preserve.
The YEER program is the brainchild of Janneke Petersen. Janneke, who has an outdoor education background, first began to envision it when working as a middle-school science teacher in Seattle.
“The kind of teacher I wanted to be was one who solves environmental problems in the community with my students, and I wanted my classroom to be a launchpad for tackling climate change, biodiversity loss, polluted stormwater, and other environmental issues,” she explained.
To that end, she began taking her classes regularly to a park down the street, where they observed that the local plant life was choked with English Ivy, an invasive species. A restoration day would be nice, Janneke thought, but she saw a window of even greater opportunity: a unit with a local restoration project embedded into it. She soon discovered, however, that though there were numerous units about ecosystems available to her, the most local one she could find was based in Yellowstone.
“In order for teachers to be able to solve environmental problems in their community,” Janneke said, “they need two things: high quality curriculum up to national standards, and expert partners in the community.”
Janneke eventually left teaching to sail the world, partially funding her travels by writing curriculum for nonprofits, but she remained focused on her vision of a science curriculum where students participate in restoring their own natural ecosystems. Last year, she pitched her idea to WNPS, an organization with a mission to promote the wonder and care of our unique ecosystems through study, education, and advocacy. She saw WNPS as the ideal organization with which to build this program because of its state-wide presence, extensive network of members who share an interest in native plants, dedication to education, and active Steward Program.
Janneke Petersen with QSD students.
The WNPS Steward Program is a community-based program designed to provide opportunities for citizens to conserve, protect, and sustain the biodiversity of the native flora in Washington. Trained WNPS Stewards, in partnership with land managers, can play the vital role of expert partner to teachers in designing and implementing a restoration project. A generous donation by two WNPS members, the formation of a YEER Advisory Committee, and the addition of two Coordinator positions, allowed for the launch of YEER. During year one of a two-year pilot, they’re working with six schools across Washington as well as two land trusts — Jefferson Land Trust and Capitol Land Trust — to use their preserved lands as restoration sites.
In addition to hosting students at our preserve, the Land Trust brings valuable local knowledge to the restoration partnership: How do you remove reed canarygrass? What do you plant in its place? How exactly do you plant a plant? Preserve Manager Carrie Clendaniel is pleased to be able to share that information with the students.
“Our mission at the Land Trust involves preserving these places forever,” said Carrie. “It’s critical that we work with our youth now, because they will be inheriting these lands. It’s great to set both the students and the land up for success.”
Snow Creek Forest Preserve consists of a variety of natural areas that are home to streams, plants, and wildlife, but some areas within the preserve still need more attention and care to be truly healthy and resilient. The students spent their first day at the preserve learning what makes an ecosystem healthy and what makes an ecosystem unhealthy.
Heading up the hillside in the healthy forest.
After discussing the limited biodiversity at the restoration site (dirt, rocks, bugs, just a few plants other than the dominating and nonnative reed canarygrass, and a garter snake were observed) they took a silent “Wonder Walk” up into the forest, which serves as their “reference ecosystem” — a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem they’ll study and use as a guide for their work on the restoration site. In an exercise called “Each One Teach One,” each student was challenged to learn about a specific native plant or tree in the forest and teach their classmates about what they’d learned.
“The day went really well,” said Carrie. “We got to see some major differences between the reference site and the restoration site, but the students were also clearly noticing a lot of smaller differences in wildlife in addition to the big obvious differences, like lack of trees. We’re setting them up for some thoughtful, interesting experiences to come.”
Now that the students are beginning to understand what makes a healthy ecosystem at Snow Creek, they’ll apply that understanding to planning restoration at the learning site. At the end of their four-week unit, the students will be guided in crafting proposals. Finally, they will implement the actions outlined in their final proposal with three additional field trips to Snow Creek Forest Preserve — two in the fall and one this coming spring, where they’ll remove invasive growth and reintroduce the native plants they’ve determined are essential to restoring a healthy ecosystem.
Jeff said, “I’m a strong believer in place-based education and experiential learning, and this combines both of those. It’s in their backyard, a place that they can call their own, that they can contribute to. And they can apply the skills and knowledge that they gain to the academic work we do in the classroom.”
Students shared ideas and questions about what makes an ecosystem healthy.
The Land Trust hopes this pilot project will become an annual science unit providing students with an invaluable hands-on-learning opportunity, an introduction to natural resource career paths, and a chance to build a legacy of restoration at Snow Creek Forest Preserve.
Added Jeff, “I think they’re really going to enjoy taking ownership of a place and will get excited about how they can contribute to it.”