Waukesha County Schools, University and Parks Department Collaborate to Promote Environmental Education


Environmental education for children, high school students and adults has experienced a revitalization in Waukesha County recently. Three years ago, the county published two environmental education guides: one for schools and one for everyone else. These guides have been instrumental in making the community aware of all the environmental education resources the county has to offer, and students and teachers have embraced them.

The guides contain a special events calendar and descriptions of UW-Extension resources, professional development opportunities and recycling, Scout and Retzer Nature Center programs.

The Retzer Nature Center hosts an abundance of opportunities for younger children, from presentations at school to star-gazing in the planetarium. The county holds some of their own programs there, and they’ve collaborated with the center in creating new ones as well. There are countless affordable field trip options for kids, and all environmental health, water resource and recycling programs are free.

Jayne Jenks, a conservation specialist in Waukesha County who focuses on water, did presentations at 37 schools for 2,700 kids in classrooms last year alone; she took another 600 kids from seven schools out for fieldwork.

Jenks tries to incorporate as much hands-on learning as she can when working with students. She teaches them how to test water quality when possible and uses the Enviroscape model to make runoff pollution visible and comprehensible for kids. Through the Green Schools Program, the kids get resources to install rain gardens, purchase recycling bins and go on field trips, said Jenks.

Enviroscape Model Display at Waukesha County Swim Lessons

It’s not just students who are engaging in environmental learning, though. Waukesha County provides two major opportunities for teachers: a county land conservation teacher tour and Project WET.

The idea for the tour was adapted from summer tours put on by Wisconsin land conservation departments each year, with the goal of giving teachers a glimpse into local conservation work. The third annual tour will take place in July and they’ve been very successful so far, said Meribeth Sullivan, a recycling specialist in Waukesha County.

“I had been attending the land conservation tours and I thought, ‘I wonder if we could get teachers involved with this’. But what we decided to do instead was offer teachers the same type of tour specifically for teachers and keep it in Waukesha County,” said Sullivan. “Quite often there are projects going on and people don’t understand how they work, or how the government works, or what we even do, so we took them on tours of the recycling facility in Milwaukee and a wetland restoration area and tried to show them.”

In the past, they’ve also visited lakes (in relation to invasive species), a CSA farm, a former county compost site, a local quarry and more. This year there will be an additional tour specifically for teachers in the Waukesha School District, for which they can receive credit.

Teachers are also able to participate in Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) at Retzer Nature Center. This workshop highlights stormwater and how it impacts the environment, and teachers who attend learn about local resources and how to use tools for water quality and macro-invertebrate sampling.

Last spring, another learning opportunity popped up not far from the nature center. Carroll University finished construction of the Prairie Springs Environmental Education Center, which was built to benefit not only university students, but a larger community of environmentally-minded individuals.

The university put out a press release expressing its interest in starting K-12 programming at Prairie Springs and Rebecca Mattano, Waukesha County Solid Waste Supervisor, jumped at the opportunity.

“I taught at Caroll prior to coming to the county, and I ran into one of my old bosses and suggested we sit down and discuss the resources available so that we’re not all competing for the same audience," said Mattano.

The outcome was an agreement between the county, Waukesha School District and Carroll University to collaborate on environmental education and nature center programs. While the county feels confident assisting in programming for elementary and middle school students, the university will likely take the lead in creating more technical opportunities for high school students.

The group has completed curriculum for kindergarten through third graders and is now reviewing material for fourth and fifth graders. All of this work will be piloted in the fall, while they continue to create programs for middle and high schoolers.

“By 2018 we hope to have the whole curriculum out there as an iBook for teachers to use, and we hope that through working with the school district to pilot it, we can work out any kinks and make it really universal,” said Mattano. “While there will be aspects that are important to the Waukesha School District, we’ve also worked really hard to make sure it’s applicable to schools across the board, whether that’s county-wide, regionally or state-wide. We’d like to see this become a model for other programs.”

Photos via Jayne Jenks. Feature photo shows AP Environmental Science students at Sussex Hamilton High School performing dissolved oxygen tests.

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