Kids at Seth Lewelling School learn to get wet. And muddy. Every one of the 400 students at the Milwaukie, Oregon elementary school is a 4-H Junior Wildlife Steward, part of a nationwide program developed by Oregon State University Extension Service to engage schoolchildren in hands-on learning about the natural world.
The children don’t have to go far to find a laboratory for learning. Next door to the school is a four-acre wetland owned by Melissa Yeary and her husband, who have opened their natural area to the schoolchildren as an outdoor classroom. Yeary is a 4-H Wildlife Steward, a trained volunteer working in partnership with OSU Extension and Seth Lewelling School. The wetland’s native trees and shrubs she has planted with the schoolchildren show the success of their collaboration.
Throughout the year, rain or shine, Seth Lewelling teacher Mary Kay Kalenius brings her class of Junior Wildlife Stewards to the wetland. Their first step is to observe. Maybe they see a wasp nest, a dead mole, a pair of praying mantises doing an elaborate dance. Observation inspires questions. “Why does the pond change size so much?” “Where does the water come from?” “When will the frog eggs hatch?” “How does having houses affect the wetlands?”
The students undertake investigations based on their own questions. While learning about amphibians, some students built a small pond on school grounds in hopes of attracting frogs. Within a very short time, according to 4-H Wildlife Steward Sally Yackley, frogs appeared at the pond along with water snails, algae, and other pond dwellers. And, later, a pair of ducks took up residence. And…the ducks ate the snails…which would have eaten the algae…and soon the little pond was overgrown with a bright green carpet. A hands-on lesson in pond ecology unfolded before their eyes.
“The process is enhancing kids’ learning in the classroom,” says Maureen Hosty, an OSU professor and coordinator of the 4-H Wildlife Stewards program. “Research has shown that so many kids in this country are disconnected from nature. They don’t play outside anymore. The 4-H Wildlife Stewards program is having a profound effect on kids. They are taking ownership of the sites they steward, and they have a greater appreciation and awareness of natural resources.”
The program has grown from six Portland-area schools in 1997 to over 45 schools throughout the state, boosted in part by an $890,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. All 4-H Wildlife Stewards curricula are tied to Oregon Science Education benchmarks. “We’re educating a whole generation of kids about their watersheds,” Hosty says.
Few schools are lucky enough to have a wetland laboratory right down the road. When 4-H Wildlife Stewards Susan Wieske and Kimberly Connell-Croston began a club at Hopkins Elementary School in Sherwood, they took their students to nearby Stella Olsen Park. Most of the kids knew the park as a playground with swings and a slide. They had never noticed the wetland.
With help from community partners, the schoolchildren traced the connections among the wetlands, creeks, and river and visited a nearby wildlife refuge. They planted native trees in the park’s wetland. For some kids, it was their first experience of digging their hands into the soil. “Many of them couldn’t wait to bring their parents and show them the wetland and the trees they had planted,” Wieske said.
When Imlay Elementary School was built in the summer of 2001, a bioswale was constructed next to it, part of a requirement in Hillsboro to manage water runoff. Second-grade teacher Lea Naylor saw potential for a 4-H Wildlife Stewards project. Since then, about 250 kids have studied the bioswale and the role of plants in water filtration. With help from 4-H Wildlife Steward Chuck Packard, the Imlay students put in plants and measured water quality to learn how a bioswale affects storm water quality.
The success of the 4-H Wildlife Stewards program relies on the enthusiasm of trained volunteers who work with classroom teachers and OSU faculty to bring the research-based Extension curriculum alive for children. “The 4-H Wildlife Stewards volunteer is the catalyst,” says Maggie Livesay, an OSU Extension 4-H faculty member in Benton County. Livesay helps provide the 24 hours of training required to become a Wildlife Steward.
Patti Warner discovered the 4-H Wildlife Stewards program in Benton County and engaged the interest of Jefferson Elementary School teachers Kristin Erickson and Hilary Schloss. The “Keepers of the Creek” project was born. Their focus was Dixon Creek, an urban stream that runs along Jefferson School grounds. Supported by Warner’s enthusiasm, Erickson wrote a $14,000 environmental education grant to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for learning materials, equipment, and supplies for restoring 800 feet of Dixon Creek. With the Benton Soil and Water Conservation District’s help, Warner wrote an additional $3,000 grant to the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board for native trees and shrubs.
Boosted by support from the neighborhood, local businesses, and 13 government agencies, schoolchildren removed invasive species, planted 600 native trees and shrubs in the riparian zone, and created a buffer zone that helped establish more wildlife habitat in this urban area. “Kids now understand the meaning of ‘invasive’ and ‘non-native’!” Warner laughs.
Each classroom at Jefferson School had a 4-H Wildlife Stewards project relating the creek to their science curriculum. Kindergartners studied butterflies; first graders studied aquatic insects; older grades mapped the riparian zone and studied food chains. Jefferson third graders worked with Crescent Valley High School student mentors to do water quality testing. With the help of an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, Gary Galovich, the children seined the creek and learned firsthand about the 13 species of fish that occur in Dixon Creek.
“Jefferson School is a model of hands-on learning and urban stream restoration,” Livesay beams. “We’re developing life skills in youth and raising community awareness. Wildlife Stewards help kids gain a sense of connectedness to the natural world. And they stay connected, and they come to understand the complexities of nature.