Q. Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Kara Contreras, and I teach 7th & 8th grade Science at Brixner Junior High in rural south-central Oregon. This is my 6th year teaching STEM courses. Previously, I taught high school math and science in rural Washington and Idaho.
Brixner Junior High School has earned an Eco-Schools USA Bronze Award for work on the Schoolyard Habitats® pathway. The school is home to a Certified Schoolyard Habitat, designed and built by students and staff over two years as part of a local Schoolyard Monarch Habitat Seed Grant. In addition to native plants for local wildlife, the habitat is used for outdoor learning.
Q. How often are you able to teach outdoors using the space that you and the students have created?
My ecology science elective students go out to the garden two to three times a week for our class period. They help maintain the garden during these days, but also we use the outdoor classroom space for “regular” classroom lessons. Sometimes we’ll have research to do on a topic or completion of a written assignment that we’ll take out to our benches around the garden. I’ve found the change in setting helps improve the engagement of all students in my class. My students get much more excited about completing assignments outside than they do sitting inside four walls.
Q. Tell us a bit about creating the Eco-School Club and the types of activities students are doing?
Several years ago, I started an Eco-School Club that met before school hours to include students who could not be a part of the Ecology science elective course. The Eco-Club members helped with our pre-and post- site evaluations for the Schoolyard Habitats pathway documentation, specifically the soil and water testing. Students created educational posters for the school and a Google sites website to share our class photos and garden progress online. For the current school year, we are still figuring out a way to fit in meeting times with the change in building schedules.
Q. Do you have any advice to offer specifically for teachers working on environmental projects with middle school students?
At each step, I tried to make every garden decision and improvement student-driven. For example, mapping out pathways in the garden, measuring borders for materials, planting, watering, weeding, leveling, plant labeling...you name it! It often would have gone MUCH faster with an adult, but I knew if the students had put in the work, they would take much more ownership and pride in the space. I only half-joke when I tell each class they need to come back and take their high school senior pictures in “their” garden!
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I would not call myself a green thumb and had several sleepless nights worrying that I was in over my head. I applied to several grants that turned me down, and talked to many businesses unable to make donations due to unstable financial circumstances. These barriers are real-life examples for students to see, experience, and help problem-solve. I recommend reaching out to local clubs, extension offices, and retired teachers for advice and help.
Lastly: start small. Even just a couple of milkweed plants on the backside of a building could be the start of something bigger. No doubt many moving parts fell into place for the garden to get such a great start the first year at Brixner, but I believe if you have enough desire and drive, you can make just about any vision possible with the support of your community.
Q. Can you describe how increased access to nature and the outdoors benefits students at your school?
In my classes, I’ve seen students show more interest and pride in their local community. With our Certified Schoolyard Habitat focusing mainly on pollinator needs, we talk a lot about the importance of native species (plant and animal) - how unique and resilient they are. Thanks to the project, I believe our students have gained a greater sense of home and ownership in the community around them.
Over the last couple of years teaching with the Monarch Mission curriculum, I’ve been thankful for the platform Monarch butterflies provide for a broader conservation look. When we start with the Monarch - such an innocent, small, undeniably beautiful insect - we can’t help but feel committed to the conservation efforts. But the Monarch also acts as a launching point for much more controversial conservation topics in class - discussions about species that we might not find as “beautiful” or “useful” to humans.
Q. When teaching about the environment, how important are field trips in helping students connect to the work on school grounds?
I find field trips extremely valuable to our classroom discussions and projects. Not only are they a massive motivator for students, but they also help expand student views on the importance of their work and actions in the community. I try to find local areas with native species that tie back to our classroom discussions of ecosystems and conservation. We’ve taken trips to the upper Klamath Basin to visit the local creeks that are historically essential to our local Klamath Tribe. We conduct scavenger hunts for native plants, birds, and fish and calculate the water quality of streams by keying out aquatic macroinvertebrates we find. Without fail, we can always find wild milkweed plants along the marshy banks of Wood River!
I’ve found that focusing on wildlife and the importance of our local ecosystems on the landscape show students just how connected every human is in the Klamath Basin. Field trips are a fun way to ground these discussions to real places and people.
Brixner Junior High has earned an Eco-Schools USA Bronze Award. What’s next for the 2021-2022 school year?
Our future plans include planting more flowering native plants, adding a row of trees for local bird species, and incorporating more educational signage to inform visitors to our school grounds. Using the Eco-Schools USA Consumption & Waste Pathway, our Eco-School club aims to partner with our newly established Brixner Booster Club to implement more recycling efforts around the school.