When you think about a high school field trip to the forest, what comes to mind? Hiking boots, binoculars, magnifying glasses, plant and fungi identification, data collection – the science stuff, right? Well, some high school students are getting much more than a science lesson on the Discovery Trail at the HJ Andrews Long-Term Ecological Research Forest in the western Cascades Mountains, where researchers are seeking to provide a more holistic experience by connecting students with the forest though art, imagination, critical thinking and reflection.
Working with environmental scholar and philosopher Dr. Michael Nelson at Oregon State University (OSU), Sarah Kelly is pursuing a Master of Arts degree as a member of the first cohort of the Environmental Arts and Humanities program. Through this program, Sarah works with many collaborators at the HJ Andrews Forest to enrich the experiences of middle and high school students through environmental education.
Built in 2011, the Discovery Trail at the HJ Andrews Forest not only provides researchers access to field sites, but also is a venue for educational programming. Since the trail’s inception, researchers have designed curriculum that integrated the arts, humanities and science – the foundation of Sarah’s research. The objective for the trail curriculum is to invite students to explore their own curiosity and values for forests while learning about place through observation, mindfulness exercises, scientific inquiry, and storytelling. Sarah and other researchers are interested in how this integrated arts/science curriculum stimulates appreciation and empathy for non-humans and ecosystems. This curriculum was first used on the trail in 2016.
With the use of iPads to guide activities and collect research data, students engage with the forest at a series of stops. After a silent sensory walk to just be in the forest, students cluster in small groups to participate in the lessons at a designated location. At one stop, students are instructed to gain intimate knowledge of one plant by observing all of its features and completing a blind contour drawing. A clearing at another stop encourages students to find clues and identify reasons for disturbances in the forest and their impacts – positive and negative – on the forest ecosystem. Another stop invites students to consider how we can care for forests by reading Salmon Boy, a Native American legend about a boy that gains an appreciation for non-human life by becoming a salmon.
Using the iPads to log student experiences on the trail, pre- and post-stop reflections, surveys and interviews, Sarah and her collaborators are able to understand the students’ experiences on the trail and assess any cognitive or affective shifts. Several weeks after the trip, teachers are also interviewed to find if the trail experience has impacted student learning and behavior in the classroom. Many teachers are returning visitors, bringing different classes to the Discovery Trail each year.
So far, the students have expressed positive feedback about their trip on the Discovery Trail with many citing their relaxed mood, new career interests and inspiration to better care for nature. Sarah is busily analyzing the data collected to support her findings and identify ways to continue to enhance the program.
Sarah cultivated a new interest in human impacts on the environment while working for a green events company – the kind that focuses on sustainability – after completing her BA in Communications at her hometown university, the University of Houston. A few years after graduating, she led campus sustainability initiatives for her alma mater – a job she enjoyed immensely, but she always knew that graduate school was her next big undertaking. A work trip to attend the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference brought Sarah to Portland, Oregon, where she and her husband, Dwan, fell in love with the Pacific Northwest.
Eventually, Sarah was able to combine her graduate school dreams with her desire to live in Oregon when she became a student at OSU. Sarah is now nearing the end of her graduate studies and recently participated in a Spring Creek Project Retreat to work on a writing piece, as part of her final project – a creative non-fiction composition about her experience with students on the trail. After leaving Houston, Sarah has learned to embrace and enjoy uncertainty and is keeping all possibilities open for her next big step. There is no doubt she will be working to improve the world around us.
Join us on Sunday, February 11 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to journey with Sarah through her environmental education research and path to graduate school.