Working in and learning about the environment can turn on kids who have been turned off by education.
That is a lesson that comes through loud and clear in Malcolm Shabazz High School's Project Green Teen (PGT), an integrated science and experiential education class that combines science and cold water stream ecology with leadership, healthy choices and fly fishing.
The lure of fly fishing, for instance, encourages student awareness of the need to be stewards of natural resources.
Many of the students say they used to love the outdoors but then just got away from it while growing up, and the project brings them back into touch with natural resources.
"These teenagers come out of the program and are passionate, have energy and think that they can change the world and make a difference," said Tina Murray, lead PGT coordinator. "They say, 'I want to make sure that the environment is OK.' "
On June 11, the program at the alternative Madison school will cap its fifth year, combining science, math, literature and arts to focus on learning through service and natural resources.
This semester, students built 11 LUNKERS structures (which provide underwater cover for trout) with the help of the Blackhawk Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Janesville and the Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department; planted three acres of oak savanna at Lake Farms County Park; pulled invasive plants at Token Creek Park and on the Kickapoo Valley Reserve; and planted 50 trees at the West Fork Sportsmen's Club near Avalanche.
The students will participate in Madison's Take-a-Stake-in-the-Lakes on June 9, cleaning a portion of Lake Mendota's shoreline.
"We have a small school, but every single teacher and our principal, Sally Schultz, are committed to Project Green Teen and are very supportive of environmental education," Murray said.
This year, the program includes 18 high school students. Their trips are packed with hands-on learning experiences, a service component and fishing with volunteers.
"As a result, we see improved attendance at school, higher academic achievements, and kids who thought they couldn't go to college are now going to college," Murray said.
Some students said they would like to work with natural resources, and one student this semester has received a four-year scholarship to pursue an environmental degree at Northland College in Ashland. Another is applying to UW-Stevens Point in water management.
"One student has just been accepted into the Youth Conservation Corps, which only accepts 30 students a year nationally, and she will work this summer at Yellowstone National Park," Murray said.
Confronting nature-deficit disorder
Murray said the staff at Shabazz has added an organic farming class at Troy Gardens twice per week. This fall there also will be a new environmental education and ethics class.
The program fits in perfectly with Richard Louv's writing in "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," which talks about problems today with youngsters who are not interacting with nature. Their interests are organized sports, computers and music devices.
Students can only take the class once and are limited to one semester, but this year a new class called "Green" is available for those who completed PGT.
"We use Richard Louv's book, and look at our environment and get kids back into nature," Murray said. "The focus is being in nature, including putting your feet in the stream, birdwatching, canoeing and fly fishing."
Getting by with a little help
The program exists with help from, among others, the Southern Wisconsin and Blackhawk Chapters of Trout Unlimited, members of the Badger Fly Fishers and Trout Unlimited, Summit Credit Union, REI, Alliant Energy, Madison Fishing Expo, Willy Street Coop, Organic Valley in Westby and the Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department.
"Paul Krahn, of Vernon County Land and Water, gets all the lumber, and Trout Unlimited members help the kids build LUNKERS structures and their confidence goes from a '10' to '80,'" Murray said. "DNR fisheries people such as Kurt Welke, Dave Vetrano and Mike Miller have been very helpful. One magic moment was when Mike Miller, who is an entomologist, showed insects emerging from streams and we watched as a blue-winged olive crawled out of its shell - and, after drying its wings, flew away."
Welke, the DNR's Madison lakes fisheries manager who worked with the students on Black Earth Creek, said he, "found the young adults refreshingly motivated. They showed an intensity and genuine interest in what they were doing and also why they were doing it."
PROJECT GREEN TEEN
WHAT:The environmentally themed learning endeavor will be featured in an open house Wednesday.
WHEN:2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
WHERE:Library at Malcolm Shabazz Alternative High School, 1601 N. Sherman Avenue.
FOR INFORMATION:Contact Tina Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
\Contact Tim Eisele, a free-lance outdoors and environmental columnist, at email@example.com.