Saving the World one Program at a Time

Written by: Alexandra Olson

The Canopy Connections Team at the University of Oregon

The hour long drive up to H.J. Andrews forest is serene. The road curves along the banks of the McKenzie River and under a bridge the college students recognize from the movie Homeward Bound. First passing a fish farm on their left, students laugh as they again fail to stop at the broasted chicken stand they have stared at many times longingly. A Christmas tree farm marks their final left turn off of the main road. Dressed in their Canopy Connections shirts made specifically for their project, the eight team members begin unpacking lesson plans, whistles, water bottles, snacks, safety waivers and first aid kits from their backpacks. Once unloaded, they greet the staff of their two community partners, the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute and the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. Smiles spread across the student’s faces as they see the long awaited school buses approaching the forest parking lot. They can already hear the excited chatter and screams of middle schoolers leaking through the school bus windows. Months of instruction, hard work and planning has prepared the team for this very day. Today they become the teachers, and the H.J. Andrews Forest canopy is their classroom.

Team member of the Canopy Connections Program teaches students about the H.J. Andrews Forest canopy- Photo Credits: Devon Bonady, Christa Linz, Debra Brann, Brian Basor

The Canopy Connections Program is one of the many Environmental Studies Programs available to students at the University of Oregon. Students enrolled in the programs take a two term course that includes a one hour lecture every Monday, workshops teaching them about new research methods and technologies, and eight hours of lab time, either in the classroom or out in the field. The Programs match student teams with a long list of local non-profit organizations, governmental agencies and businesses such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed Council, Food for Lane County, the City of Eugene, the Eugene Water and Electric Board, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and many more.

The Canopy Connections team says their main goal is to encourage children and adults to spend more time outdoors exploring. After first crafting a lesson plan during winter term in the classroom, student leaders teach more than 200 students about old growth canopies during eight field trips scheduled in the spring. Peg Boulay, co-director of the Environmental Leadership Programs, says the programs give the undergraduate students hands on experience in developing and implementing environmental leadership programs. “Most of these kids want to teach. If you’re going to teach, there’s no better way to learn a subject than to teach it,” Boulay says.

Every Wednesday, the team meets in either the Environmental Leadership Program lab or the Mills International Center on the university campus. They discuss their lesson plans, upcoming field trips, successes, failures, social media tactics and how to better communicate with both their designated community partners and younger students. The student team members say that collaborating at least once a week helps keep them focused on accomplishing their common goals.

The Canopy Connections Team meets in the Mills International Center for their weekly Wednesday meeting

“We hope to improve the environment with every student that comes on our field trips,” says Sarah Caponi, junior environmental studies and Spanish major. “We hope that our work and field trips will have a sort of domino effect on the community and environment.”

Jake Kurzweil, senior environmental studies major, says that there are two types of days the team, students and chaperones can experience while climbing trees in the forest. The first is a sunny, blue-skied day. Birds are chirping, the lichen is drying out and the smell of fresh pine fills the air. The harnesses that propel students and team members up into the canopy are harsh and dried out from the sun. Rays of sunlight shine through the top of the trees as they gently sway back and forth in the breeze. The higher the group climbs, the more excited they get.

And then there is the other kind of day–the day when it is pouring rain. The lichen is everywhere, and it feels as if the trees themselves are hoses tricking water down the teams’ faces. The fog slithers through the top of the canopy as spots of sunlight strain to creep through the clouds. The Canopy Connections Team looks down and feels awful as they see the solemn faces of soaking wet children. Still, by exchanging words of encouragement, the higher the group climbs, the more excited they get.

The Pacific Tree Climbing Institute helps propel students, chaperones and the team up into the H.J. Andrews Forest Canopy–Photo Credits: Devon Bonady, Christa Linz, Debra Brann, Brian Basor

“At the top of the canopy the trees seem to have little arms, carrying fluffy marshmallows for me to look at in the morning,” Kurzweil says. “Whether the day is sunny or pouring down rain, it is always an extraordinary experience.”

Alan Dickman, director of the environmental studies program and senior instructor of environmental studies and biology at the university, says that the Canopy Connections Team is extremely dedicated and passionate. Dickman thinks the general public sees environmental issues as being straightforward and black and white. However, he also believes students in the Environmental Leadership Programs have the ability to prove this assumption wrong. “More and more students are recognizing that the real solution to environmental issues is about people becoming a part of the system of nature as a whole,” Dickman says.

Emma Newman, junior environmental studies major, says that she believes the Canopy Connections program is making a difference in these younger student’s lives. On her first field trip ever, as she was leading her group of students and chaperones to the forest parking lot for lunch, they saw four deer on the edge of the path. “One of the students was in awe and said he had never seen a deer in real life before,” Newman says. “At that moment I knew I had helped change someone’s life that day.”

Nevertheless, the students say that while they are striving to reach their goals obstacles do appear. Shaun Wykes, senior environmental studies major, says that earlier in the year they were faced with a challenge that nearly prevented them from taking any field trips at all. A colossal chunk of land came down during a mud slide, blocking the main road that leads to the H.J. Andrews Forest. “Every member of the team was worried that all our hard work would be put to waste,” Wykes says. “Thankfully they fixed it.”

As middle schoolers from Ashbrook Independent School, McKenzie Middle School, Spencer’s Butte Middle School, Ridgeline Middle School, Eugene Waldorf School, Fern Ridge Middle School and Roosevelt Middle School file out of the buses, the Canopy Connections team breaks into two groups. Half of them quickly circle the students together and locate their accompanying chaperones. It is important for the Canopy Connections team to instruct both the younger students and chaperones about what they will be doing that day. Meanwhile, the other four team members begin passing out hard helmets to everyone. Inside each of the helmets is a journal to take notes in that the middle-schoolers prepared in a classroom visit two weeks earlier. After brief direction, the Canopy Connections team introduces the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute. Staff members from the institute tell the group that they are trained professionals and will make sure that every individual will get to the top of the canopy safely. And finally, after all logistics are said and done, everyone begins the trek towards the forest, rain or shine.

Middle school students listen to the student teachers and write notes in their journals that they prepared two weeks earlier in class–Photo Credits: Devon Bonady, Christa Linz, Debra Brann, Brian Basor


Side Bar 1: Question and Answer with Devon Bonady 

Q: What is your title here at the University of Oregon?

A: I am a masters candidate in the environmental studies program.

Q: What got you interested in environmental studies?

A: I care deeply about the conditions that my community, region, and the world will be in for my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on. I think that one way to support and strengthen environmental change is by encouraging people to re-connect with nature and their own feelings of love, respect, and nurturing for this place that supports all human life. I chose to attend graduate school in environmental studies so that I could gain tools and techniques to help others learn about and connect deeply with the environment through hands-on experiences.

Q: What tools or methods do you implement to help sustain and improve the environment?

A: I work as an environmental educator. I help adults, undergraduate students and children connect with nature and understand the importance of a healthy and resilient environment through direct experience. I grow a large percentage of the produce that my family eats throughout the year as well as raising chickens for eggs and cultivating plants for our personal health. I teach others how to be more self-sufficient with regards to food, healing, and social needs in a way that supports and enhances our local environment and community.

Q: What problems have you experienced while trying to reach environmental goals?

A: I feel frustrated at the sheer number of people who are not consciously linking their own actions with direct environmental consequences. I feel angry that so many people are struggling to meet their own and their communities’ basic needs including food, clean water, and respect while others have the means to help but choose not to. This means that we cannot focus on long term goals because we need to deal with immediate crises.


Side Bar 2: Alyse Nielsen 

Alyse Nielsen is a peer advisor in the University of Oregon’s environmental studies office. While she is unaware of what her future holds, she says that working for the university is allowing her to continue to learn about a subject that she is passionate about. Currently, her job title entails her to help guide students who express interest in environmental work. Having just graduated as an environmental studies major from the university in the Spring of 2011, Nielsen says that she can easily relate to undergraduate students, a task that she finds rewarding.

Before she graduated, Nielsen participated in the Riparian Respiration Stewardship Program under Peg Boulay, co-director of the Environmental Leadership Programs. Along with seven other students, Nielsen worked with two local watershed councils monitoring the effectiveness of plants in riparian zones, areas of growth next to water. By first recording and analyzing data, Nielsen helped her team members compile and compose effectiveness reports for the participating watershed councils.

Nielsen says that while the program was both exciting and helpful, there were problems that she and peers helped to address. “We had to make some changes to the monitoring manual and guidelines to make the data less biased,” Nielsen says. “This was important to ensure that the data was more accurate in our reports to the watershed councils.”

Since Nielsen graduated, Boulay has implemented these new changes into the now retitled Stream Stewardship program. Nielsen says that she learned more by participating in the Riparian Respiration Stewardship Program, than she did in all of her other environmental studies courses at the university combined.



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