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Teaching Moment

For the Gila Conservation Education Center, the time is right to branch out.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

 

Like the very "web of life" itself, the Gila Conservation Education Center (GCEC) seems to be connected to every conservation organization and effort in southwest New Mexico. Hard to put a handle on as an individual entity, GCEC is perhaps easier to define by the work of its more than two-dozen "partners"—conservation groups, government agencies, local schools, businesses and coalitions of everyday citizens.

GCEC director Steve Blake gives a science lesson at
Aldo Leopold High School. (Photo by Donna Clayton Lawder)

Tricia Hurley, a wildlife biologist and GCEC staffer, says the Silver City-based organization has particularly strong partnerships with the Gila Native Plant Society and Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society, both of which have developed teaching materials for GCEC and given hours of volunteer time. Allyson Siwik, executive director for the Silver City-based Gila Resources Information Project (GRIP) points out that her organization's former director, Harry Brown, was instrumental in getting GCEC off the ground. The two organizations have collaborated on grants to support preservation work on the Gila River, the last free-flowing river in New Mexico, and other watershed issues. GCEC has organized family activities for GRIP's Gila River Festival two years in a row, Siwik adds.

Last month, GCEC was the driving force behind and a major co-sponsor of a large-scale symposium, "Natural History of the Gila," with topics ranging from overgrazing to fire management, water use to native flora and fauna. The event drew some 140 participants, including representatives from US Fish & Wildlife, the US Forest Service, Audubon groups, native plant societies across the state and small land preserves.

The symposium was a coming-out party of sorts for GCEC, which almost simultaneously got a big boost from the Gila National Forest office of the US Forest Service. A supporter of GCEC since its inception three years ago, the area forest-service headquarters inked a five-year cost-sharing agreement through which it will to continue to house and equip the GCEC office while providing new funds to assist with the center's Web site development, to reimburse program volunteers for gas mileage and even to pay a portion of the GCEC's director's salary. The arrangement replaces a prior year-to-year agreement, and indicates the forest service's "unwavering support" for GCEC's efforts, a spokesman said.

Beginning to be more than just the sum of its partnerships, GCEC is shaping up as an area conservation presence in its own right. It's raising its profile and gearing up for growth—looking to train more specialized volunteers, adding to its educational outreach, and strengthening its own infrastructure.

The work of Silver City grant writer Nikki Zeuner gives clues to the newly energized GCEC's future direction, or rather directions, as Zeuner identifies three distinct areas for which the group is seeking financial support.

A Trunkful of Volunteer Opportunities

GCEC needs additional presenter volunteers to work with its educational "Trunks Project." You need not be an expert, as presenters are fully trained in the trunks' materials and given presentation instruction. Presenters accompany the trunks to schools and public workshop groups to share information on everything from birds to wildfires, wolves to waterways. If you've got a little bit of time and a big desire to spread awareness about southwest New Mexico's priceless ecosystem, consider these opportunities:

Volunteer Orientation—Nov. 4, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.: For those interested in volunteering, GCEC's Education Coordinator, Steve Blake, will give an overview of the trunks and discuss how to present in the classroom.

Trunk Training Sessions—Nov. 6-11: Trainings for presenters on all 10 trunk topics will be provided the week following the orientation. Schedules for these trainings will be available at the orientation.

Birds for a Purpose—Nov. 6, 4-6 p.m.: Free workshop for teachers and volunteers. Presented by Stacy Urich from Santa Fe's Randall Davey Audubon Center. Sponsored by GCEC and held at the forest service office in Silver City.

Contact Andrew Tegarden, GCEC volunteer voordinator, 388-8265 or andrew@gcecnm.org.

One grant currently in the works, Zeuner says, would advance GCEC's restoration plans for Silver City's historic waterworks building on Little Walnut Road, next to the José Barrios Elementary School. The forest service currently leases the property to GCEC, which hopes to turn it into a conservation education center and eventually house its offices there. The 20 acres surrounding the waterworks building have potential as a native-plant botanical garden and wild-bird habitat. The local Native Plant Society and Audubon chapter are among GCEC's partnering organizations on the project, as is the Mimbres Archeological Society, and all three groups have interest in the site's restoration and preservation.

Zeuner says the current waterworks grant application targets securing funds for "the next phase of developing a plan for the project." She concedes that actual restoration and development of the property is perhaps years down the road.

A second, more immediate grant effort, Zeuner says, aims at capacity building. This hopes to secure funds for the organization's infrastructure, she says, allowing GCEC "to have more staff instead of being so volunteer-driven."

 

A third recent grant from the PNM Foundation, Zeuner says, is helping GCEC enhance and expand its educational "trunks program"—boxes of fur and feathers and such that go out into the public schools along with special workshops to bring hands-on learning opportunities. Already up-and-running, the trunks program is a large part of the organization's educational outreach.

Funded largely, to this point, through an Environmental Protection Agency grant, the program pairs the trunks of special demonstration materials with a specially trained presenter who delivers the lesson plan. The program's 11 subject areas include birds, wolves, geology, archeology, fire ecology, forestry, watershed and mining. All are geared to the Gila Wilderness area, its forests, mountains and bodies of water.

Thinking Outside the School Desk

When Education Coordinator Steve Blake isn't manning the GCEC office, he's teaching science at Silver City's Aldo Leopold High School, a charter school that exemplifies GCEC's environmental-education philosophy. Now in its second school year, Aldo Leopold is a certified public charter school with an enrollment of just over 70 students from 9th to 11th grade. (See the July 2005 Desert Exposure.) The foundation of the school's curriculum, which is hands-on and experiential, Blake says, is "the environment as an integrating context."

Blake was a science teacher at Silver High School up until about three years ago. He left after returning from a trip to Zambia that was a, well, watershed experience for him. "When I came back, I realized I didn't fit anymore," he says. He eagerly climbed on board the effort to start up the Aldo Leopold school. Though not formally affiliated with GCEC, Aldo Leopold represents what Blake calls the organization's "dream school."

On the cover of a brochure promoting the school is a photo of a teenaged male student with clipboard and pen, sitting in a riverbed. "Think outside the desk," the brochure invites.

In its own literature, GCEC calls the Gila ecosystem "our greatest resource—an outdoor classroom and science laboratory awaiting discovery." At Aldo Leopold High School, this is apparently taken literally.

On a typical school day, a handful of male teenagers noisily work on a wooden multi-shelf wall unit. Ripping out? Installing? It's hard to tell. One teen measures and calls out numbers while another hammers away. Over in Blake's classroom, two girls sit at side-by-side desks, one of them reading aloud from a book while the other writes notes, periodically repositioning the 18-inch-or-so snake slithering slowly across her notepad. Plants and small terrariums dot the room—science projects in process or resident arachnids, perhaps. It's a little dark to tell, and a little scary to look too close. A huge gray hippopotamus skull sits on a desk near the back of the room, seeming to survey the scene before it.

Blake says of the Gila forest just outside the doors of the high school's new home on Hwy. 180, "It's such a rich resource for research. The local community is out of touch with the research that is occurring in their own backyards." Though local forest-service workers and scientists lead this research, Blake says, students at Aldo Leopold also put their hands in: Monitoring water flow, measuring tree growth, documenting the flora and fauna they find in the hills and on the trails—it's all part of their curriculum.

"We're not just a bunch of liberal environmentalists," Blake says with a laugh. "We don't have an agenda, but we do have an advocacy. We present both sides of things, like the issue of wolves in our area, for example. The kids come to their own conclusions, based on the information." On the issue of wolves, he says, a local rancher came to speak to the class. Blake says the school's approach teaches all the basics in a practical format, with relevance to the world in which students live.

Measuring the basal area of wood and monitoring the forests teaches practical math and science skills, Blake goes on. Reading about the conservation concepts of local environmental pioneer and legend Aldo Leopold—after whom the school is named, after all—addresses both language arts and social studies. Such an approach enhances the learning process, Blake says, as students are engaged with their lessons, retain information they gain through experiential means and learn their subject matter's practical application.

The high school's director, Jerry Boswell, adds that response to the charter school—only in its second school year—has been excellent. He describes it as "bursting at the seams" with students, with actual enrollment beating last term's projections. The staff now numbers five full-time and eight part-time, including a counselor and the school secretary.

Teachers at Aldo Leopold are multi-disciplinary, Boswell says. All are licensed and certified in a given subject area, but given the school's hands-on approach, they also grab spontaneous learning opportunities as they arise, reaching across the curriculum to give a lesson real-life application.

"Teaching is an art," Boswell says. "This is the hardest any of us have worked in our entire teaching careers. But the reward, the 'buy-in' is incredible.

The class's teacher must be present for the lesson, explains GCEC Education Coordinator Steve Blake, but the trained volunteer does the presentation. "You don't just sign (a trunk) out like a library book," Blake adds. "A specially trained person comes out with it, and delivers the lesson to the class or group." The program has been "quite a success story," he says, already reaching well over 1,000 students.

"We have at least a hundred requests for trunks right now," Blake says. "What we need are more trained presenters. We need to find people with interest in these subject areas that we can train and send out to the classrooms." (See box.)

But don't be misled by the trunks program's "touchy-feely" approach. This is bona fide education, Blake insists. Each trunk comes with comprehensive lesson plans geared by grade level and a list that shows how the presentation meets the state's education standards and benchmarks.

Silver Consolidated Schools administrator Dick Poole concurs. "Anything we bring in to enhance the educational process absolutely must meet educational objectives," Poole says, adding that he is often pitched by groups and organizations offering "educational enrichment."

"If we did everything that walks through the door," Poole says, "our teachers would waste a lot of time and the students would suffer. The trunks program is very clear and addresses the 'standards and benchmarks' we need to meet to give our students a proper education."

Poole says the tactile nature of GCEC's trunks program enhances learning and aids retention: "Absolutely, any time we can tie learning to real life is beneficial. The kids learn it better and retain the information better."

 

Brenda Padilla, a fourth grade teacher at José Barrios Elementary School, says she's used GCEC's educational trunks many times over the past two years, coordinating special "outdoor classroom" sessions with fellow teacher Mark Cantrell's third-grade class. "It's been great," Padilla says. "The educational objectives are right there, the benchmarks are clearly spelled out."

The break in routine from a standard classroom lesson is of value in itself, Padilla adds. "We set the trunk materials up first thing in the morning and the kids go through all the stations. They really love the discussion aspect, getting to talk about their observations. The kids love that discussion is 'allowed' in this approach, and being outside excites them and really engages them," she says.

Tricia Hurley, the GCEC wildlife biologist, has worked extensively with the trunks program, and says she wants to see this outreach tool reach even more students and community forums. "Quite simply, what we need now is more people. We know it's working, and we have a good assortment of trunks," Hurley says.

GCEC has some 25 active trainers and volunteer presenters. But more need to be trained so they can be sent out with the trunks in order to meet the backlog of requests. Andrew Teagarden, a volunteer through the AmeriCorps Program, currently is coordinator of the trunks program and has set up training opportunities for new presenter volunteers for early November, Hurley says.

At the conservation symposium, Hurley herself wore a few hats simultaneously. A representative of the local Audubon chapter, she manned that group's table, while simultaneously soliciting educators to sign up to bring the trunks to their schools and new trunks-presentation volunteers for GCEC.

"It's really interesting, and a lot of fun engaging with the kids," she says of the presenter's job.

And the kids aren't the only beneficiaries, she adds.

"It's great for adults, too, just to be trained to do this because they learn so much about their own local ecology," Hurley says. "People are surprised when they learn where their own household's water comes from!"

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