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Connecting Schools With Nature: helping young people understand sustainability

  • Bob Carlson interacts with kindergarteners on a "senses" walk in the CREST garden.
  • Carlson hikes with students through the forests of Orcas Island on a spring break trip.

Forty-seven students strutted down the runway at Wilsonville High School this spring, modeling garments they had fashioned entirely from recyclable materials like phone books, newspapers, used Post-it Notes, pop cans, candy wrappers, CDs, raisin boxes, and coffee filters.

The “Trashion” show, conceived by West Linn–Wilsonville art teachers, is one of the main events at the school district’s annual Sustainability Showcase.

“It also highlights our connection to Jane Goodall’s global Roots and Shoots program, which is designed to help young people understand and solve sustainability issues,” says Bob Carlson M.A.T. ‘95, executive director of the Center for Research in Environmental Studies and Technologies (CREST). In September 2001, Goodall visited Oregon to dedicate the center.

Carlson works closely with district teachers and students at CREST, an integrated facility that engages them in hands-on science, field research, and community service projects both on- and off-site.

The center sits on four acres of land surrounded by two West Linn–Wilsonville schools and Graham Oaks Nature Park, a 250-acre green space recently purchased by the Metro regional government agency. Metro chose CREST to serve as one of the gateways to Graham Oaks, which includes several wetlands, creeks, fields, and a 75-acre forest containing a stand of old-growth Douglas fir. The site is slated to open in September.

“CREST is the centerpiece of science education in the district’s 13 schools,” says Carlson. “We lead students in active research and rigorous inquiry.”

Carlson says he’s created his dream job at CREST.

As a boy, he grew up in Oregon’s great outdoors, collecting snails and frogs that his parents generously allowed him to put in the family bathtub. He spent every other weekend and summers at his grandparents’ 20-acre farm outside of Portland and camping with his parents. And for a couple of weeks each year, he visited his other grandparents, who lived on the Oregon coast.

“I absolutely loved anything to do with nature and animals,” he says.

After a stint in Oregon’s Youth Conservation Corps, as a student and camp counselor, Carlson entered the forestry program at Oregon State University. But he missed working with students on conservation projects, so he decided to pursue a degree in teaching.

Later, working toward his M.A.T. at Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling, Carlson met Greg Smith, professor of teacher education, who specializes in place-based education. This approach promotes learning that’s rooted in the unique history, culture, and ecology of students’ local communities.

Inspired by the concept, Carlson selected Memorial Park in Wilsonville as a place to practice conservation in his local neighborhood. With the blessing of the park’s director, he began a restoration project along Boeckman Creek, which runs through the park. For three years, he and his students monitored the stream’s pH and oxygen levels, planted native trees, and ripped out invasive plants.

Eventually, he took a leap of faith. Teaching half time in the district, he spent the rest of his time creating his current position at CREST.

CREST offers a variety of programming, such as STEP (Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program), Learning-on-the-Go trips, spring break trips/camps, after-school classes, summer environmental camps, and waste-reduction programs. The center’s newest venture is the Farm-to-School food initiative, which aims to transform 10 acres of unused school property into a working farm that will supply produce for 13 school cafeterias. Carlson’s duties include teaching, grant writing, and securing resources for the center.

“What we do at CREST is important because our natural resources are limited,” says Carlson. “It’s vital to show kids that they can make a difference.”

—by Pattie Pace

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