Nonprofit Makes Environmentalism Part of Schools' Curricula

May 08,2015

DENVER— Getting teens to do their homework? Good luck! Getting them outside and into the mountains to research solutions for environmental problems? That, it turns out, is not that difficult.

"Getting kids out into the environment inspires them to protect it, because if you don't know what you are protecting, why would you bother?" said Juliet Luna, a senior at New Vista High School in Boulder, Colorado.

That's the Cottonwood Institute's mission. Working with teachers, the Denver-based institute supports programs that incorporate environmental projects into local school lesson plans. Cottonwood also teams up with another nonprofit, Community Adventure Programs, to take students on hikes and overnight camping trips.

As a class, the students at New Vista High School and the other schools Cottonwood works with choose an environmental issue to work on. They explore possible solutions and then team up with local environmentalists to implement those changes. At the end of the 6-to-12-week program, students come away with a better understanding of environmental issues and how they can make a difference.

"I've learned a lot about CCD, which is colony collapse disorder, which has to do with the disappearance of bees," said senior Jaden Games. "I've also learned a lot about fracking and water pollution."

In some cases, the environmental lessons hit very close to home. One program encourages students to come up with solutions to reduce their school's environmental footprint.

Cottonwood's founder also wants the teenagers to think about future generations.

"A big thing that is important to us is making sure that our students take care of the land they are exploring," said Ford Church. "In the city, you may drop a piece of trash on the ground and [that] may not be a big deal, but that is a big deal to us because this is our playground. This is our office, so to speak, and we really want to take care of it."

For students, like Jaden and his classmate Cassidy Lam, it's a chance to experience how one person can make a difference.

"It's really good to learn about the ecology and learn about the [problems] that we cause in the environment and how we can work on that and fix that," Games explained.

Lam added, "It just felt like all of the things that were happening to our planet that are negative feel so big and impossible for me to change. But while getting involved in this program, I realized that it is actually really easy to take it step by step."

Last year, the decade-old Cottonwood Institute served 415 students, guiding them through nearly 5,000 hours of projects that gave them a chance to explore the outdoors and make a difference in their community.