The Greatest Classroom on Earth
America's Youths Head Outdoors to Learn Science in the Natural Laboratory
Near Portland, the BLM's Salem District manages the Wildwood Recreation Site just west of Mt. Hood and home to Cascade Streamwatch, an internationally-recognized environmental education program. For the past 18 years, the BLM has partnered here with Wolftree, a Portland-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving science education and opportunities for local youths.
By combining classroom time with hands-on project-based learning in America's Great Outdoors, Wolftree and the BLM provide urban Portland students with an intensive program focusing on Oregon's forests and watersheds. Each year some 3,000 to 5,000 youths benefit from this intensive program that serves to make them more competitive for college, careers, and citizenry.
EYES OPEN WILD
Oregon Youth? Meet Science. Science? Meet Oregon Youth. Now let's take this party to the woods...
A partnership between the BLM and Wolftree - a non-profit helping youths become our nation's next scientists through educational outreach - has found a model that marries the theoretical knowledge of a classroom with the practical skills of the real world. Through this partnership, thousands of inner city Portland youths have traveled down woody trails to study Mount Hood's clear mountain streams, lush forests, and vital wildlife. And these studies not only get these young people out of the classroom and into nature providing a welcome change of scenery - but they've also transformed many students' futures.
Since 1994 Wolftree has built a reputation for supporting communities in both the Portland area and the outlying communities of central Oregon. "Our focus is on underserved rural and urban communities," says Wolftree Executive Director Dale Waddell. For Portland area youth, field studies are frequently carried out at BLM sites like Cascade Streamwatch at the Wildwood Recreation Site and the Larch Mountain Environmental Education Site near the town of Corbett, Oregon.
For the last seven years, Wolftree has worked closely with Marshall and Jefferson High Schools - two of Portland's traditionally underserved secondary schools. Wolftree's Science in the Forest Project provides a basic framework of forestry skills and scientific inquiry. "Major investments by extraordinary teachers and numerous outside organizations have helped students make significant academic gains in math, reading, and science," says Waddell.
FLY LIKE A SQUIRREL
One example of these natural research projects is an award-winning study on Northern flying squirrels carried out at the BLM's Wildwood Recreation Site. In 2005, Jill Semlick and her science students at Pauling Academy of Integrated Sciences on the Marshall campus used Wolftree's Science in the Forest Project to develop a testable question: What type of forests supports Northern flying squirrels?
The elusive Northern flying squirrel only comes out at night. It is found in forests across North America and is famous for its flat tail and furry membrane between front and rear legs that allow it to fly through the air.
Local students spent days in remote parts of Wildwood using peanut butter seed balls in live traps to capture and study the squirrels. Youths learned to use a Global Position Satellite (GPS) mapping device to establish a grid center and count the number and types of trees in the area. They then catalogued all the plant and animal species they could find. Because Northern flying squirrels are strictly nocturnal, the students even got to spend an overnight at Wildwood to observe the squirrels when they are most active.
At the end of each school year, students formally presented their scientific data and conclusions to peers, teachers, mentors, and members of their community. "The presentations are the culmination of a rigorous student-led project involving science inquiry, applied science, and the use of technology," said Waddell. And the entire presentation process teaches more than just science. Students are required to plan, organize, work in teams, and communicate effectively.
Over four years of this project, the class became experts on Northern flying squirrels in the region. And this project is just one of the many conducted by Wolftree and their partners on BLM-managed public lands.
10,000 GOOD REASONS
"There are...scores of students who have gone on to achieve great things," says Wolftree's Waddell. In fact, just last year he was contacted by Jefferson High School biology teacher Stephanie Pringle who shared with him, "One of my students...decided to do a research project after a Wolftree science teacher brought in beaver scent glands and after reading a book called Lilly Pond about a beaver colony that was observed for 4 years. Her project later won first place in the animal science category of the Portland Public Schools Science Expo, and she was awarded a $10,000 scholarship to OSU!"
The benefits of rigorous scientific study in a practical environment aren't limited to grants. They also demonstrate regular, quantifiable results in students' academic abilities statewide. "At Marshall High School, students went from 22 percent exceeding state science and math performance levels in 2003, to 65 percent of students exceeding science and math performance levels in 2007. That is an over 40 percent gain," states Waddell.
Though the Marshall High School campus closed this past spring, the momentum that began there and at Jefferson continues undaunted. Corbett High School has launched a similar study of Northern flying squirrels at the BLM's Larch Mountain Environmental Education Site. Additionally, students at Jefferson and Sandy High Schools have set up a similar study on the beaver and river rat.
Whether these students continue studying science or choose to pursue other academic or vocational pursuits, they'll be able to use their experiences applying theoretical learning in a practical environment to whatever they choose to do. And just like the flying squirrel, the sky's the limit.
For more information about the BLM's outreach to local communities, please visit us online.