By. Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong, Director of Earth Partnership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
School site restorations provide a powerful context within which students can engage in the process of doing science that is relevant to their everyday lives. As students participate in restoration and stewardship activities, they relate to their local environment and develop the attitudes, knowledge, and skills necessary to become environmentally literate citizens.
Students who engage in habitat restoration learn about science, history, language arts, math, art, and music outside in nature. The restoration process builds a context for learning that makes sense to students. They study site history, measure physical and observe aesthetic features, analyze soil, and learn the biology of native ecosystems. They read literature, write journals and poetry, and incorporate non-human and human needs and values into a restoration project that may include elements such as native plants, benches, pathways, water, play structures, and opportunities for continued restoration, scientific monitoring, and storm water/pollution mitigation.
Aldo Leopold noted in A Sand County Almanac, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Since 1991, Earth Partnership at the University of Wisconsin – Madison Arboretum has been building the capacity of students and formal and non-formal educators to restore native habitat on schoolyards and in natural areas. Earth Partnership employs a place-based approach, acknowledging that it is the local communities of interest and practice that form the ecological ground on which we can build partnerships. Earth Partnership has successfully collaborated with diverse communities to implement habitat restoration projects at schools and nearby natural areas that involve teachers, parents, students, scientists, and resource practitioners.
The Earth Partnership Ten-Step Process of restoring an ecosystem involves students directly in the process of restoring habitat:
1 Connect with community resources and partners.
2 Study native species, habitats, and ecosystems.
3 Investigate written and oral history and landscape patterns, past and present.
4 Analyze soil, water, slope, sun/shade, vegetation, and physical and aesthetic qualities.
5 Plan a butterfly garden, rain garden, grassland, woodland, or wetland restoration.
6 Prepare remove existing vegetation, layout the design.
7 Plant sow seeds, transplant seedlings, and celebrate!
8 Manage remove invasive species and create signage.
9 Research ask questions, make observations throughout the restoration process.
10 Learn study language arts, science, math, social studies, music, art, life skills, love of nature.
These steps help avoid the temptation to “PUT IN” a schoolyard habitat or outdoor classroom. While active participation from natural resource and community partners is essential, so is ownership on the part of students, teachers, and the school community. Such buy-in is important for the long-term use of the outdoor learning spaces and integration into the school’s curriculum.
Earth Partnership has expanded in the past several years to intentionally incorporate multicultural perspectives in stewardship through the Indigenous Arts and Sciences and Latino Earth Partnership (LEP) initiatives. These initiatives integrate culturally relevant place- and project-based curricula and resources with school- and community-identified priorities. LEP was piloted in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is now in locations throughout the continental U.S., Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador. The program is based on a culturally responsive curriculum which employs resource, asset, and strength-based approaches to engage youth in environmental stewardship.
The Kinnickinnic River: A Case Involving Students in the Restoration Process
In 2007, the Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee was named the seventh most endangered river in America due to pollution, toxic sediments, and low water levels. Only six years later, in 2013, the KK River Rehabilitation Project was recognized by the American Public Works Association as their National Project of the Year. This is a remarkable change for this heavily urbanized and diverse watershed. The community and its visionaries were motivated to bring new life and health to the river and its watershed, and make it a nice place to live for people and wildlife.
The relationship between humans and the river has been full of changes. From the settling of Milwaukee through the first half of the twentieth century, the river ran naturally through the city. In the early 1960s, the river was straightened and channelized. Over time, this concrete ditch became a dangerous eyesore that was unsafe for children and adults, and unable to handle flooding from large storms. Today, community members – many of them Latino in this historically Polish immigrant neighborhood – are coming together to learn from and share each other’s experiences and memories, and to be actively involved in greening their neighborhoods by planting rain gardens and helping with river restoration projects. Schools are involved too! Students are learning first-hand how they can impact their environment by improving the health of the watershed through planting native plants, building rain gardens, and engaging in other water-friendly actions.
In summer 2015, a week-long LEP restoration education training institute was held at the Urban Ecology Center Menomonee Valley Branch 33 for formal and informal educators, natural resource professionals, and community members. Participants learned about the restoration of the Kinnickinnic River and how they and their students can take an active role in restoring the river and its watershed back to health. They shared their own unique life experiences and gained knowledge about stormwater, rain gardens, and ecological restoration. They also became more aware of the connections between ecological issues, the lessons they teach in their classrooms, and the ways they and their students live in their communities. On the final day of the institute, participants planted a native plant rain garden at Pulaski Park on the Kinnickinnic River. Escuela Verde High School senior Connor Mitchell, with filmmaker mentor Reynaldo Morales and Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers’ community engagement specialist Iris Gonzalez, completed production of a Kinnickinnic River documentary for classroom and community use.
The following quote from a LEP institute participant exemplifies why teachers were interested in involving their students in restoration-based education.
“I would like to learn more about how I can make a greater impact on my environment as well as incorporate this into my curricula so my students can become more active participants as well as have a greater understanding/appreciation of their world. I’m interested in learning how to start a place-based project that involves the community and my students. I think children naturally love science and are curious about their environment. I want to inspire them to take an active role and use their own knowledge and backgrounds as springboards to action.”
Evaluation findings from the LEP institute in Milwaukee demonstrated that the 33 participants from 10 schools were inspired in the areas of adopting culturally and linguistically inclusive practices, making community connections, incorporating project- and inquiry-based instruction, and aligning their instruction with standards. The quotes below speak to the fluency participants gained in teaching dynamic restoration-based education. They addressed language and culture in their classrooms, they engaged students, they connected with the community, and they addressed environmental issues.
“We went to Pulaski Park and did numerous activities involving the river. My students are understanding where water comes from and where it goes. I am excited about doing these gardens and teaching about the environment, my students are also excited.”
“I am involved in integrating a site restoration project on our school grounds with the students in our Environmental Science class this school year. The class is in the planning stages now and will be preparing the grounds, planting and finalizing the project in the spring of this school year. Watershed issues have been integrated into this course curriculum since the beginning of this school year. Students have responded extremely favorably, with a positive and curious attitude, and have had a high level of excitement and commitment to this process. I especially appreciate the lessons, ideas, resources, and excitement/enthusiasm. This has strongly affected my classroom! Students see the relevance of the activities/lessons to the immediate world around them, and to the important issues facing the Earth at this time.”
“The students have assessed the area where we will be building our rain garden, they have shared their migration stories, and also have reflected about nature by doing on the spot reflections. When teaching English Language Learners, one must use various strategies to make the education accessible to the students. I have used more pictures, videos, writing in both languages (Spanish and English), more drawings, especially designing plans and projects, sharing stories with each other and presenting. (…) By participating in the institute I have increased my motivation to teach and also increased the students’ learning motivation. Because of the so many technological advances, I have learned how to use the Google classrooms where I am able to have the class share and obtain resources needed for learning while I, as the teacher, design many of the open-ended assignments. This has been a beautiful journey with the students this year.”
“We have so many new ideas of community members to connect with to help us with this process and we will be able to create a space that we might have previously dreamed of but never knew how to get there.”
“My students are especially motivated by simply being outside, as well as the opportunity to contribute something beautiful to our school community, the neighborhood in general. I think the restoration project will lead my students to see how what they are learning can impact the community and therefore how it extends to life beyond the classroom.”
“My high school students are comparing three sites where concrete was removed on the KK River. Four student teams chose to restore shoreline along the river as the action component of their river studies.”
This June, additional teachers from Milwaukee in the Kinnickinnic River watershed will participate in LEP. Over the years, more and more students will play active roles in caring for the river through restoration and greening on their school grounds, in their yards, and in their new parkways. These stewardship projects will provide many opportunities to engage with multicultural perspectives and underserved populations through restoration, project-based curricula, and professional development.
Key partners involved in the KK River Rehabilitation Project include:
- 16th Street Community Health Centers
- Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District
- Groundwork Milwaukee
- Southside Organizing Committee
- Milwaukee Christian Center
- The Lincoln Village Business Association
Key partners involved in LEP include:
- Urban Ecology Center
- 16th Street Community Health Centers
- Milwaukee Public Schools
- Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
- University of Wisconsin Extension
- Escuela Verde High School
- University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
- University of Wisconsin – Madison Arboretum
About the Author
Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong directs the Earth Partnership program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison Arboretum. She expanded restoration education from its local focus in the 1990s to a community engagement model in 22 states, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. Initiatives include Indigenous Arts and Sciences, Latino Earth Partnership, and Global Earth Partnership. She is passionate about engaging youth in school and community-based restorations that improve landscape health and encourage a new generation of land stewards.
 Campbell, W.E., & Ramona, G. (2015). WEITQ Evaluation Preliminary Report: Latino Earth Partnership: Colaboración Ambiental. Hudson, WI: Campbell Grants & Research, LLC.
 Campbell, W.E., & Ramona, G. (2016). WEITQ Evaluation Final Report: Latino Earth Partnership: Colaboración Ambiental. Hudson, WI: Campbell Grants & Research, LLC.