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April 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 7

Back On Track with Climate Science

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A high school re-engages students through hands-on STEM learning.

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Last year, high school junior Darrious Thomason lacked both academic credits and inspiration.  
He needed a daunting 20 credits to graduate with his class at Lisa Mattson On Track Academy (LMOTA), a choice option school in Washington State’s Spokane Public Schools for juniors and seniors who feel like they’re not a good fit at the other high schools in the district. Yet no matter how often teacher Nate Ziegler encouraged Darrious to join outdoor and off-campus activities for credit, he remained ­unmotivated. 
Until the day he said yes.  
Back On Track with Climate Science Image 1Credit: Photos courtesy of Lisa Mattson On Track Academy

Student Darrious Thomason hikes at Waikiki Springs near the Little Spokane River in an outdoor event organized by Lisa Mattson On Track Academy (LMOTA).

 In one year of participating in LMOTA’s Urban Canopy and Tree Hero unit, Darrious made up 14 credits and has become a frequent participant in tree planting and environmental restoration events. Now a senior, he isn’t just earning credit and going outdoors. He’s learning about climate science and how it affects his community—and taking direct action to address those impacts. In the past three years, students from his school have conducted tree inventories of their neighborhoods, consulted with the City of Spokane urban foresters, shared their findings with the city council and community groups, and planted and given away thousands of trees. They’ve learned about urban heat islands, heat dome effects, how economic disparity relates to tree canopy, and how planting trees can mitigate climate change.

It’s All About the Storylines 

Through the Open Doors Youth Reengagement System, LMOTA provides opportunities for 16- to 24-year-olds who have dropped out of the school system or, like Darrious, who simply aren’t on track to graduate before age 21. Students are engaged in Solutions Oriented Learning Storylines, a framework developed by the Pacific Education Institute (PEI), a statewide nonprofit that provides training, tools, and resources for K–12 educators to engage students in outdoor-based learning aligned with state education standards. PEI’s “storylines”—or multi-week units—help teachers guide students in explorations of climate science through such topics as forestry, wildfires, coastal hazards, wetlands, food waste, regenerative agriculture, renewable energy, and urban forestry. These topics ignite student interest because they’re locally relevant and solution based; moreover, they elevate student voice and offer strong leadership opportunities outdoors. All of the students involved in the Urban Canopy and Tree Hero unit have graduated on time.

Now a senior, Darrious isn’t just earning credit and going outdoors. He’s learning about climate science and how it affects his community—and taking direct action to address those impacts.

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Let’s look at two LMOTA units that have ­reengaged students in school and put them back on track for graduation. Both illustrate what a review of research found—that experiences with nature promote learning. 

The Urban Canopy and Tree Hero Unit 

In 2020, during the height of COVID-19, students did tree counts in the neighborhood around their campus and researched tree canopy data from The Lands Council, a Spokane-based nonprofit. What they learned was disturbing. The corner of the city where LMOTA is based had, on average, half the tree canopy coverage of more affluent areas. There was a strong correlation between canopy coverage and income level.
Back On Track with Climate Science Image 2Credit: Photos courtesy of Lisa Mattson On Track Academy

Students at LMOTA plant trees as part of the school’s Tree Hero unit in an area of Spokane, Washington, that has low canopy coverage.

Students launched an outreach campaign to share their results with community members and city officials. The City of Spokane urban foresters helped them identify areas that could most benefit from having trees planted, and the students contacted businesses and community groups for permission to plant. Spokane City Urban Forestry provided the trees and arborist expertise, with The Lands Council providing additional support. In 2021, LMOTA became one of the first schools in the United States to earn a Tree Campus K–12 Founding Campus accreditation through the Arbor Day Foundation.

Studying Wildfires 

Students in another multi-week unit at LMOTA are expanding their knowledge of forest management using a different PEI storyline: wildfires. This is a relevant topic in Spokane because in the past five years, eastern Washington State has had some of the world’s worst air quality during the summer due to smoke from fires, forcing residents indoors for weeks at a time.  
Every spring through tree planting season, teachers offer a three-week unit on urban forestry and wildfires that focuses on the cause and effect of wildfires, how controlled burns limit the intensity and longevity of wildfires, and preventive measures to mitigate risks. Students build model homes, where they learn about the importance of creating firebreaks and proper landscaping positioning that can reduce wildfire damage.  
Back On Track with Climate Science Photo 3Credit: Photos courtesy of Lisa Mattson On Track Academy

LMOTA students involved in the wildfire unit, along with 5th graders from nearby Regal Elementary School, simulate a wildfire to observe the difference between a managed and an unmanaged forest.

Students engage in a wildfire simulation activity using matchboards; they see what happens to the pace of a fire on a grade and when it starts in the middle. In ­follow-up discussions, foresters at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources share their knowledge of how fires work and the role of ­controlled burns in preventing catastrophic ­wildfires.

Igniting Inspiration 

As the students at LMOTA can attest, climate science education works, not just for those who would be successful in any academic setting, but also for students like Darrious, who hadn’t found anything to spark his interest—until he discovered the urban forestry program. At its best, climate science education infuses learning with relevance and immediacy, enables students to directly apply what they’re learning, and empowers them to create genuine change in their communities.  
End Notes

1 Kuo, M., Barnes, M., & Jordan, C. (2019). Do experiences with nature promote learning? Converging evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(305). 

Heidi Smith is associate director of communications and development at Pacific Education Institute, a statewide nonprofit in Washington that has been a leader in sustainability and environmental literacy education since 2003. She is a former high school, community college, and technical college English teacher. 

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