A connection to conservation

Outdoor School provides sixth-graders with the chance to learn about nature, give back

“Invasives vs Natives” is an interactive way that outdoor school organizers teach students about the local ecosystem. Buy this photo

The Vic Clausen Youth Education Program

The Vic Clausen Youth Education Fund was established in 2008 with a $65,000 gift from long-time supporter and Vancouver resident Phyllis Clausen in honor of her late-husband. With a strong environmental background, Phyllis saw the need to provide an environmental education experience. The Vic Clausen Youth Education Program began seven years ago in partnership with the Washougal School District, where it continues today. More than 1,000 middle school students have participated in this program.

The goal of the program is to expose local youth to the Columbia Gorge, its significance as a national treasure, and the story of its preservation through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. The program also strives to “nurture the connection” that Washougal students already have to the Gorge and builds on their sense of place to develop a land stewardship ethic.

Source: Friends of the Columbia Gorge

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Students learn more about native plants during an interpretive walk at Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge.

Determining whether a middle schooler appreciates something can pose a challenge for adults at times.

However, local outdoor school organizers are convinced that the program makes a big impact with the students, even if they don’t display it outwardly.

“You may not see it now, but we’re hoping that in the future, they can draw from this experience and the memories,” said Maegan Jossy, outreach coordinator for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “There’s something special about this experience, something you can’t get in a classroom.”

This is the seventh year that the non-profit organization has partnered with the Washougal School District to provide the Vic Clausen Youth Education Program. The Friends sponsor the entire trip, find experts to work with students and put the activities together.

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Outdoor school organizers hope the experience of participating in service learning projects and other activities will stay with the students for a lifetime.

Prior to the current partnership, teachers and students stayed on school grounds for an outdoor school experience. Before budget cuts, students went to Cispus Learning Center in Randall, Wash., for overnight field trips.

Now, students at Canyon Creek and Jemtegaard Middle schools have the opportunity to visit the Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge, Beacon Rock State Park and Hamilton Mountain. There, they learn about landscapes, animals, trees and details on how the Columbia River Gorge formed.

The program is two days for Canyon Creek students, and three days for Jemtegaard, due to the number of students.

If you ask one of the sixth-graders what their favorite aspect of outdoor school is, a likely response will be the opportunity to get out of the classroom. And that’s the point.

But there is also a lot of learning that happens. Outdoor school, aligned with state science standards, is meant to give students a hands-on approach to the natural world they can’t get by going online or looking at photos in a textbook. They learn through inquiry and practical application by doing hands-on activities.

“There are lots of conservation and educational pieces woven through this,” Jossy said. “For the kids, it’s a connection with nature and their own backyard.”

This year, the Friends of the Columbia Gorge received a $5,600 grant from Camas-Washougal Community Chest to help enhance the experience for students.

“This provides training for the volunteers before the program to allow for a better coordinated and informed experience for the students at Steigerwald,” Jossy said. “The financial resources (also) improve the curriculum for both sites, at Beacon Rock and Steigerwald.”

At Steigerwald, Jemtegaard students kept busy playing the “Invasives vs Natives” game, going on an interpretive walk through the refuge, and clearing away blackberry bushes and other weeds.

Lily Carranza, who often visits Steigerwald, enjoyed the opportunity to see new birds and animals.

“This gets us out and being active instead of sitting at a desk all day,” she said. “This is a great way to get out, look around and learn about stuff.”

It was Chase Muller’s first time at Steigerwald.

“It’s really nice, calm and quiet,” he said. “You get to learn about nature in nice weather instead of watching videos and sitting in the classroom. I learn better out here. It is easier to remember because the sites you visit stick in your brain.”

Teacher Rebecca Bohlin thinks the biggest benefit to outdoor school is getting kids in a different environment.

“It’s nice for them to be able to apply what they have been studying in science to real life,” she said. “For them, to actually see it is the biggest benefit. A lot of students have never been here or to Hamilton Mountain before.”

Josie Finley is a park ranger for the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex. She coordinates educational and volunteer programs, and first became interested in conservation after participating school field trips as a child.

“This does make a difference,” she said. “For these kids, it’s a connection to nature and their own community. They will have an investment here because they are doing restoration here.”

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