Ready to learn
06.01.2021

“I’ve been waiting a year for this,” I found myself saying as I was setting up for my first in-person forestry lesson since the start of the pandemic.

I was teaching with the Salem-Keizer Outdoor School Coalition, which was started through a partnership between the Oregon Forest Resources Institute (OFRI) and Salem Environmental Education, a nonprofit organization that provides the Salem-area community with environmental education programs that teach and motivate people to become active stewards of our environment. This coalition is made up of many Marion County agencies with educators who are experts in a variety of environmental-related subject areas.

I was in a forested park right next to an elementary school in Salem. The park’s old growth Douglas-Fir and oak trees made it the perfect setting to learn about trees, forests and natural resources. It felt good to be getting ready to teach students outdoors again. Over the last year, my position description had dramatically changed because of the pandemic and the shift to remote learning for most Oregon students. Rather than being outside with students helping them discover the natural world, I and other environmental educators were trying to present the topic of natural resources over a screen. But every environmental educator would tell you that the best way to learn about our natural world is to be out there in it, creating a shared experience, helping students step out of their comfort zones, discover something new, and take on a new perspective. All of this was hard to achieve through a computer screen.

Despite that challenge, OFRI came up with some interactive lessons that students could do virtually that also included components of getting outdoors in their backyard or a nearby park. We also had lessons that teachers could download for their students, such as our carbon lesson for middle schoolers.

As I taught that first in-person lesson in May after many months of virtual teaching, it was so nice to interact with the students face-to-face again even though we were six feet apart and wearing masks. The students were engaged and curious. They participated fully and seem to want more. One student even asked during the recess break if he could “stay and learn more.” 

The teachers were happy to give this Outdoor School experience to their students. One teacher said, “This was the most content-rich Outdoor School experience I have ever participated in with students. My students gained valuable information from highly qualified professionals from different community agencies. The collaboration of these agencies, teamed with the highly qualified staff, allowed my students to gain knowledge, confidence, and a new interest in outdoor experiences. The positive comments, encouragement and career examples from the staff has created intrigue for potential future career opportunities.

At the end of the day, I went home realizing something I hadn’t expected. I wasn’t the only one who had been waiting a whole year for this day. The students, teachers, principal and instructors all walked away with the same feeling.

Rikki Heath

Environmental Educator

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