Educators in the Camas-Washougal area spent a recent Tuesday morning exploring ways to teach their students by getting outside of the classroom and into nature.
Jim Clapp, Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge manager, coordinated two environmental education teacher trainings held at the refuge and nearby Jemtegaard Middle School in Washougal. With the help of the Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, Educational Service District 112 and Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, teachers from Camas, Washougal and Battle Ground spent six hours learning how to teach using the outdoors.
“It is geared toward elementary schools, but there are applications for any level,” explained Josie Finley, one of the environmental education workers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the area. “We really try to address the needs of the students.
“Teachers especially need to know about the area since we don’t have the number of volunteers to host tours ourselves.”
The teachers were taken on a hike through Steigerwald and received a sample pamphlet to give to their students and a CD with more information about the refuge.
On their hike, they split into two groups, running through two different school activities. On the way, they re-learned basic skills, such as how to teach a fifth-grader to accurately use binoculars.
The program is geared toward fifth -graders, since it is the first year in which students take a state science test. The refuge recruited retired and current teachers to determine where students were lacking and to build an outdoor program to address those areas.
Thirteen teachers from Gause Elementary School and Washougal High School from the Washougal School District; Dorothy Fox Elementary and Lacamas Heights Elementary from the Camas School District; and Maple Grove Middle School, River HomeLink and CAM Junior/Senior High School from Battle Ground participated.
Participants aim to help kids with their test scores, but more importantly they want to inspire students to learn and care for the environment.
“They get to experience the outdoors,” said Eric Engebretson, a fifth-grade teacher at Gause Elementary School. “They get to see how the wild is so close to their home.”
The two activities involve watching and counting uncommon birds that nest there during the summer and mapping plants, some of which students have planted in previous years.
“[With] these hands-on activities, the learning will stick with them,” said Pauline Rule, a biology teacher at Washougal High School.
The bird watching exercise can only be done in early summer, while the other may be done any time of the year.
Refuge representatives and teachers are eager to move toward “citizen science,” in which the Refuge and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services use the data students collect to earn grants.
“It’s such a great buy-in,” added Erin Maier, another fifth-grade teacher at Gause. “It will encourage them, it will keep them interested.”
Steigerwald’s Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail opened a few years ago to the public. Along the set path, there are simple interactive tools that teach about the different habitants or the importance of water conservation.
“Some students didn’t even know about this place,” said Linda Miller, the advanced biology teacher at Washougal High School. “Kids can be a part of that. They can enjoy wildlife on their own and for years to come.”
Bus fare and lack of volunteers are the two main concerns that if left unaddressed could cause an untimely end to these programs and experiences.
When surveyed at the end of the training session, teachers were most concerned about funding for travel to and from the refuge.
Clapp calls attention to the lack of volunteers.
“I am reliant on other people helping,” he said. “We want to recruit college students from the area to volunteer. But before we expand the programs, we need to expand the number of volunteers.”
There will be another training program held on Oct. 20. Educators can register through ESD 112. For more information, contact Clapp at 835-8767.