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Loving Learning Outdoors

In this episode of the Learning to Serve podcast, listen to (or read below) how Heather Hubbard worked with a 5th-grade classroom to tackle an important dilemma in their community: wildlife crossings.

Heather is the Statewide Education Coordinator for Colorado Parks & Wildlife, and the edited transcript of her conversation with Krista Wallace, CDL co-chair, follows below. Scroll to the bottom to view helpful website links for outdoor learning resources.

Krista: Heather, welcome to Learning to Serve. I am delighted that you are my guest today and I just wanted to give you a chance to introduce a little bit about your background and the role that you play as an educator these days.

Heather: Thanks for having me, Krista. I'm really excited to be part of this. I grew up in a small mountain town in New Mexico and pretty much would not come inside unless I was forced to! And so having that outdoor connection has always been really important to me.

I started researching black bears when I was in college and being outside. But what I really learned was I loved teaching and I loved making connections for other people. So I switched and became a classroom teacher, and over the years, I've worked with students in different states. I've also worked in school districts with teachers and administrators and now I have the opportunity to work with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which is our state agency that manages our wildlife populations here in Colorado.

There are 42 state parks (that I work with) as their statewide education coordinator. So I still get to be part of education, but I actually get to marry my love of nature and education together and work with schools all across the state to help them do that as well.

Krista: Wow, that is super exciting. What a great job. So is a lot of your work in education virtual, or do you go in person to each of these school districts?

Heather: We do both. Within our state, we actually have regional education coordinators and then myself as the state coordinator. So we have programs where we do go into classrooms and where we may be guest speakers.

A lot of my role, specifically though, is developing curriculum and content for classrooms to be able to use. We also do virtual programs, and we're building that out even more so that way we can have more schools that can connect and learn about Colorado's ecosystems and the wildlife that live here.

And then, in the last couple of years, we have been developing classroom videos, so they are a lot of fun. They range from four to six minutes and teach students about wildlife and habitats here in Colorado, and then give them some fun, engaging activities to kind of keep going with that learning as well.

Krista: That's great. And are those, I assume those are going to be available on the Colorado Wild website?

Heather: Yes, all of that is accessible on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website. When you go there at the very top, there's a learn tab, and when you click on that, there's a spot for teacher resources. So when you go there, you can find different types of workshops that we may be offering for teachers' curriculum.

Krista: This could be a fantastic resource for schools who are wanting to do like an outdoor education week for their K-12 students. Does this curriculum also have a capability to help with a longer term studies as well such as for a whole semester or a full course?

Heather: Yes, I think there are a lot of options when it comes to resources. There's other resources on the site as well. We are the state coordinator for a resource called Project Wild, which is a national, well it's actually international and we have coordinators in Canada and also a coordinator in Japan as well that uses this resource. It's developed for the K-12 audience and it's really more of a supplemental program. There are great activities that you can bring in to your units that help students explore some of these wildlife or environmental concepts within your units in the same kind of vein as Project Wild. There's also another one called Project Learning Tree, or PLT.

We are working on some too that can go a little bit longer and that teachers have been able to use for longer project-based learning opportunities that can be more unit based.

Krista: Before we started recording, you were telling me about a project that's in our community. It's a little mountain community called Conifer, and there was a group of fifth-grade students who did a project-based learning research unit with wildlife in their community. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and how you helped facilitate their learning?

Heather: Yes, I'd love to. This was such a great project, and I was so excited to help this elementary school with it. We had actually developed a couple lessons recently on wildlife crossings as part of a broader effort in the state of Colorado.

When you think about highways, there tends to be a lot more wildlife conflict with road accidents. So we have an overpass which is outside of Conifer. We also see those in other states and even in Canada. What's really interesting about these types of projects is it really involves the community. We can't just put a big old wildlife crossing bridge anywhere. There's private land, there's public land, there's different uses. We have to know where animals are actually migrating and where do we have the most issues. It involves a lot of different agencies. It's not just Colorado Parks and Wildlife, but the Department of Transportation and public local government agencies as well.

So these are really great topics for students. Conifer has been having issues with elk and deer that are crossing one of the main highways that go through their town with lots of accidents that are happening. These students wanted to work on this and so we were able to connect with the teacher.

I was able to go in and help them plan and think more about how to take this idea and make it more personable to them and the conflict that they were having in their community. The teacher ran with it and did this amazing job of creating a problem-based learning opportunity. Students had to research - what exactly is the problem? They had to pull data from the Department of Transportation and pull it from Colorado Parks. How many accidents involved animals? What types of animals? What were the costs associated with these types? As a result they were really deciding for themselves if this was actually a problem.

Next, they had to start thinking about - what do we do about it? So they surveyed their parents and people in their community to get their viewpoints on it, and then they had to think about what will (a crossing) look like? So they started developing this idea. They talked with people at Colorado Parks and Wildlife who were involved in this research to learn from them.

In the end they developed these amazing 3D models of how they thought that they were going to be able to solve this problem. They presented it to several (experts): a district wildlife management officer, our land use coordinator, an engineer from the Department of Transportation and myself.

These are fifth graders, right? You should have seen them. Some of them were even dressed up in their three piece suits! I was so proud of the work that they did. They provided what their solution was and why they thought their solution was the right one for their community.

So not only did they learn about wildlife, but they had to learn about conflict management. They had to learn about how to work with each other when they have different viewpoints and different ideas for solutions. And how to go from just an individual idea to a group idea. They had to think about their presentation skills. It was just a fantastic example of how students can go so deep when they bring in wildlife and nature into their learning.

Krista: Fascinating. And how did all of these adults respond and receive this from this fifth grade class?

You know, when I walked out of the school with all of them, they were like, that was amazing. Part of it is because the students have really done their research. These experts from these different state agencies were just floored at how much work and how deeply these students really thought about things and that they were only fifth graders.

Krista: This is a beautiful illustration of what literally, I mean, it's what makes learning come alive for students. They're never going to forget this, this project they did on wildlife. It's very empowering for students to go that deep. Just thinking through this whole idea of people, of God's story, of helping students identify their role as caretakers of creation, you know, how important it is that. God has really given us that role. No other creature has been assigned to take care of creation other than human beings. Even these fifth grade students, that's what they're doing. They're setting things up. They are using their voice, their agency to take care of (creation).

If students are never outside, they will never develop a love. Just taking students out on a regular basis to enjoy God's great creation will help create an awareness and a desire to help take care of all that's right around us.

Heather: There's so many opportunities and so many ways to connect students by getting them outside. It can be as simple as activities like a sit spot where you have them go out and you have them use their senses. What do you see now? Close your eyes, what do you hear, what do you smell?

So going from something as simple as those as daily mindfulness routines of getting students outside to much deeper projects like the one we talked about where it can be a full problem-based learning, but the more that students are able to connect to the outdoors, the more that they're going to build their relationship to the outside and the more that they're going want to be those active stewards like we talked about.

Krista: Yes. Well, Heather, thank you for joining us today on Learning to Serve.

Heather: Thank you so much for having me.

Krista: It was great talking with you!

Below are a number of resources that your school and classroom can use to implement Outdoor Learning. Contact your state Parks & Wildlife to see how they can help you explore deeper learning in the outdoors!

Website links for resources: 1) CPW teacher resources 2) Project Wild 3) Project Learning Tree - there is also a site for Colorado PLT 4) NAAEE 5) CAEE


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