Though every second-grader knows the word "environment," many will never get any training in environmental studies until they go to college.
But they would be assured of it if they got into Jeff Mitchell's high school biology class in the logging town of Philomath, Ore. Over the past decade, Mitchell's students have restored wetlands, tested water quality, assisted endangered species, and implemented integrated pest management in a backyard school garden.
Mitchell is one of a small but dedicated corps of educators who have found a way to teach environmental studies in the conservative West. His efforts show that a quality environmental education depends more on the innovations of good teachers than the nature of pre-packaged curricula.
"My approach is to keep it positive," says Mitchell. "We have some kids who are really sharp. So I challenge them: 'Do you want to do some real research?' "
Philomath students meet Mitchell in a sophomore-level class. If they earn a B-minus or better, they get the chance to do outdoor research in ecology and micro-chemistry during their junior and senior years.
"I try to pump them up in biology class, and if they do well, they can move up to varsity," he says. "I tell them they don't have to be a genius, they just have to work hard."
Sara Williams, now an 18-year-old freshman at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., made Mitchell's varsity team, advanced ecology.
"We'd get involved in outside projects, testing water quality in streams and restoring riparian areas, and we had so much fun out there that we didn't even realize we were learning," Williams says. "It really made a difference to me to have a chance to improve the environment in my own community."
After students establish a solid record, more businesses and organizations in town start asking for help.
"People were calling all the time wondering if Mr. Mitchell had some students available for environmental projects," Williams says. "The legacy developed by the previous classes kept building and opened up new opportunities for future classes."
If Mitchell has an alter-ego, it is Clinton Kennedy, who for 17 years was a logger in central Idaho. When Kennedy began teaching science 12 years ago at Cascade High School outside McCall, Idaho, he decided to break open the traditional classroom biology class by using Project Wild, an innovative curriculum sponsored by the state Fish and Game Department.
"I noticed that the kids really struggled with standard biology," Kennedy says. "Sophomores are going through tough times, and they really don't want to be in school at all. When we integrated wildlife into the curriculum, the kids got all excited."
Kennedy's students had to learn everything about the species they chose to study its habitat, reproduction, predation, life cycle. Almost immediately, they showed much higher performance in class, he says.
In the early 1990s, Kennedy began involving his students in local environmental challenges, including a blue-green algae problem in nearby Cascade Reservoir, environmentally sound pest control (using bats to combat mosquitoes), and a sewage-treatment crisis in nearby McCall.
The four girls who tackled the sewage issue became known as the "famous sewage sisters." In the first year of the project, the girls were finalists in the 1995 Seiko Youth Challenge West Region Contest. The following year, Kennedy helped them secure seven grants, totaling $10,950, to continue their project. At the conclusion of each year's work, the students wrote up a detailed summary and posted it on Cascade High School's Web site.
"Nestled in a mountain valley lies the dying Cascade Reservoir, plagued by cyanobacteria. This bacteria does to Cascade Reservoir what kryptonite does to Superman - induces a slow and painful death," they wrote.
Their solution to the problem was to build a series of holding ponds that would treat excess phosphate effluent from the McCall Sewer Treatment Plant with natural bacteria. The students learned about the biotechnological fix from an article in National Geographic and contacted a company in Great Britain that had used it.
One of the most challenging parts of the project came when the sewage sisters had to sell the city of McCall on their solution. This put them in a political pressure-cooker, along with the city, environmental engineers and other interested parties. "They learned more about government than they ever wanted to learn," Kennedy says. "It was quite a lesson in how the world works."
Mitchell's students recently helped a timber company restore a 70-acre sawmill pond in the middle of Philomath. They mapped the vegetation around the perimeter, and in the course of conducting a wildlife census of the pond, discovered Western pond turtles, a species of special concern.
Now the city of Philomath wants to turn the area into a city park. The students made a presentation to the city council, and the community is supportive of the project.
"It hasn't happened yet, but it's on the front burner," Mitchell says.
Finding the cash
Both Mitchell and Kennedy have discovered how to fund environmental restoration projects from private and government grant sources. That's critical, they say, because schools typically are strapped for cash.
A bicycle commuter, Mitchell is applying for grants right now to buy mountain bikes, an "eco-fleet" for his varsity science students, so they can ride the short distance from school to environmental projects in town.
"All of our projects are less than three miles from school, so it doesn't make any sense to drive there all the time," he says.
At the core of Mitchell's and Kennedy's successes is a commitment to community.
"The main thing is, you have to make it relevant," Mitchell says. "By empowering students to make win-win contributions in our community, they become important players in charting the direction of our town."
Many people are amazed when high school students successfully tackle college-level research work, the teachers say.
"We put our projects on the Web, and we hear from people all over the world," Kennedy says. "They're shocked when they find out that we're only a high school science class."
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Stephen Stuebner