Outdoor Education on Public Lands

How people can enhance ecosystems to help fish and wildlife

Students from Warden Middle School test the infiltration rate of the soil.

Often in outdoor learning and environmental education, youth are met with an array of complex environmental issues they will face in their lifetime. We know that today’s natural resource problems such as climate change, habitat and biodiversity loss, and invasive species are all anthropogenic, or human caused. Historically, environmental education efforts have focused on how humans manipulate the environment with negative impacts to the fish, wildlife, and ecosystem services that we need to survive, but only occasionally does environmental education teach through the lens of how human development can help species survive, or even thrive.

STEAM in the field provides real-life learning

For the last three years, the North Central Educational Service District (NCESD) has worked with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and a variety of community partners to bring youth from throughout the North Central region to WDFW wildlife areas to explore how humans can help species and their habitats in the face of climate change. The programs, called STEAM in the Field (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math), allow students to explore how wildlife area managers, volunteers, and community partners enhance habitats to support human recreation and wildlife habitat.

The first program, launched in 2021, was piloted on Scotch Creek Wildlife Area where students explored the habitat requirements for sharp-tailed grouse, planted water birch trees, and installed beaver dam analogues as habitat enhancement for wildlife. In 2022, students from Bridgeport and Waterville started their trips to the Bridgeport Unit of the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area where they learned about wildfires, planted buckwheat, sagebrush, fleabane, and bitterbrush, and searched for signs of the sharp-tailed grouse.

In 2022 students from Bridgeport learned how WDFW natural resource technicians plant native grasses, shrubs, and forbs to help support Columbia sharp-tailed grouse

Desert Wildlife Area Unit serves as outdoor classroom

This year’s addition to the STEAM in the Field programs invited middle school students from Warden and Moses Lake to investigate habitat for wildlife on the Desert Unit of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area. Before the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project was constructed in the 1940s, the Desert Unit was entirely shrubsteppe and desert. Now, much of the unit serves as a collector for irrigation water from upslope farmlands; creating habitat for migrating waterfowl, beavers, muskrats, and many bird species. Given drastic, anthropogenic changes to this habitat, this site served as the perfect lab for students to explore how changes in an ecosystem affect populations of species and how science and engineering can enhance ecosystems to support humans and wildlife.

Like other STEAM in the field programs, students rotated through stations to determine how anthropogenic changes can impact populations of species. Using the mallard as a focal species, students explored how changes to this landscape supported mallards. This included planting great basin wild rye, removing invasive Russian thistle (also known as tumbleweed), and observing how wildlife area staff plant seeds to support habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.

A Warden student learns how to plant Great basin wild rye grass with a WDFW natural resource technician.

Students also investigated soil infiltration (the rate at which water enters the soil) on the Desert Unit with Washington State University Grant County Extension and Pacific Education Institute. Students tested two patches of soil and recorded how long it took for water to sink into the soil. They were then challenged to answer the question, “How does infiltration rate of water affect organisms that live in or around the soil?”

Staff from the Columbia Basin Conservation District hosted a plant investigation station where students learned about grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees and recorded different types of ground cover and then calculated the percentages of each cover type to determine if there was suitable habitat for wildlife.

Students learned how about the different types of plants on the Desert Unit with the Columbia Basin Conservation District

Next, students scouted a patch of the unit with WDFW biologists to see and record how many different species of wildlife they could find. Students were encouraged to use their observation skills to determine if the ecosystem was healthy enough to support a variety of wildlife.

Students also had the opportunity to learn more about the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project through looking at maps, and then engineering and designing their own dams and habitats though a stream table led by the Dry Falls State Park interpretive ranger.

Finally, in the art station of this investigation, students looked at how humans help support wildlife through artificial nest boxes and then students designed and built their very own bird’s nest of grasses, sticks, mud, and glue.

Nest building is not as easy as it looks! In this station, students learned nest building is a little bit of art, and a little bit of engineering.

Community partners are key for outdoor education

Public lands are a great space to create educational experiences for students. We hope to continue partnering with our communities in the future to support similar field learning opportunities. WDFW would also like to share gratitude for the many partners that made this opportunity possible: North Central Educational Service District, Washington State Parks, Columbia Basin Conservation District, WSU Grant County Extension, and Pacific Education Institute.

This exciting outdoor learning opportunity is made possible through the ClimeTime legislative proviso that provides funding for teachers to explore climate science and anthropogenic climate change impacts on our world and then share their learning with their students.

In the bioblitz station, students searched for as many animals as they could find.

Further learning

For teachers, parents, and informal educators who are interested in exploring how human engineering and design can enhance fish and wildlife habitat, check out our lessons: Making Space for Wildlife, People and the Environment, and Sharing Spaces.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.