How One Ecologist Found Success Connecting Students to Public Lands Through Outdoor Education
April 19, 2021
Michael Pope

If you're an educator, or work with one, you know it takes more than just imagination to get your good ideas for school projects off the ground. You need to have a clear plan of action that fits your curriculum and meets the goals of your school district while providing opportunities for students to learn in new and exciting ways. Of course, even the most thoroughly planned projects can still falter. That's where having outside partners can help.

At NEEF, our mission is to make the environment more accessible, relatable, relevant, and connected to the daily lives of all Americans. One of the ways we accomplish this is through our Greening STEM initiative, which helps formal and informal educators engage students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities to solve real-world challenges outside of the classroom.

Through partnerships with school districts, friends groups, and land management agencies across the country, we help provide educators with the resources they need to realize their ideal student projects. Check out our video series “Greening STEM in Action” to see what a successful Greening STEM project looks like.

Recently, NEEF partnered with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Colorado Canyons Association (CCA), and Mesa County Valley School District 51 to sponsor a Greening STEM project at McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area in western Colorado. BLM staff will guide students from Central High School in nearby Grand Junction through a project dealing with invasive species in a riparian, or river-based, habitat used as an outdoor classroom by CCA.

A Natural Leader in Outdoor Education

Nikki Grant-Hoffman

Nikki Grant-Hoffman, one of the team leads on this project, has a litany of experience with organizing similar outdoor educational programs. As an ecologist for BLM and science coordinator for McInnis Canyons and Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Areas (NCAs), you could even say it's part of her job description.

“I'm a scientist by training, and I was hired specifically [by BLM] to bring my science background to the NCAs,” said Grant-Hoffman. “Part of the reason McInnis and Dominguez were established by Congress as National Conservation Lands was for science and education, and we've been proactive about providing educational opportunities there for the community.”

So proactive, in fact, that Grant-Hoffman was recognized at BLM's “Excellence in Interpretation or Education” Awards for developing high-quality environmental education programs.

“Nikki's work with Colorado Canyons Association ensures we are able to reach as many students as possible with our education programs,” said NCA Manager Collin Ewing in a press release from BLM. “She has gone above and beyond to provide numerous education opportunities for youth in western Colorado to learn about the wonders of their public lands.”

Grant-Hoffman attributes her success to the long-standing partnerships she has built over the years, including with CCA.

“They are absolutely essential at helping us reach out to the community,” she said. “Sometimes folks might be a little bit hesitant to work with federal agencies like BLM, and CCA can help bridge that gap as a neutral party.”

Of course, like most partnerships, it goes both ways—CCA is also able to take advantage of BLM's land management experience and federal connections to apply for much-needed grants for education programs, volunteer work, and other projects.

“I think it's one of the things that has made us really successful and made some of our programs so long-standing and why our community keeps coming back. Everyone gets something out of it, and you can really see that we provide great programs for kids.”

A Unique, Hands-on Lesson on Invasive Species and Biodiversity

Another unsung secret to Grant-Hoffman's success? Remaining open to opportunities no matter the source. In fact, her Greening STEM project at McInnis Canyons came together almost by chance.

“It's hard to say exactly what came first. We had this invasive weed problem, and we knew we were going to try some biological controls because the area is so extensive and hard to reach,” said Grant-Hoffman. “CCA has an outdoor classroom set up right in the middle of this area, so there was already that overlap. And when we saw [NEEF's request for Greening STEM proposals], we realized it would be a good opportunity to get students involved in monitoring biological control over time as a fun long-term project. Everything just kind of fell into place.”

The project will build upon an existing management program being conducted in the Catalpa and May Flats area of the Colorado River within McInnis Canyons NCA. An infestation of invasive Russian knapweed has taken hold in this area over the past decade, choking out native species of vegetation in the understory and mid-story in this riparian habitat. If left unchecked, this infestation could threaten federally protected species such as the Yellow-billed cuckoo, which requires a complex natural habitat to survive.

Unfortunately, this problem isn't something you can fix with a simple application of herbicide.

“The area is only accessible by river or down a four-wheel-drive road plus a reasonable hike, which means there's only so much herbicide you could carry in, and it wouldn't make a big enough dent in the knapweed,” said Grant-Hoffman. “In these situations we start to look at biological control.”

In this case, biological control means the introduction of another species that naturally preys upon Russian knapweed: the Russian knapweed gall wasp. First introduced in Colorado in 2016, this insect lays eggs in the developing stems of the knapweed, causing them to swell and deform before they can flower and spread.

For this project, BLM is partnering with the Palisade Insectary to supply the gall wasps, and will involve AP Environmental Science students from Central High School in Grand Junction, Colorado, in the process of releasing and monitoring their establishment in the affected area. The class will complete pre- and post-field classwork as part of a larger unit on biodiversity, culminating in an overnight trip in May 2021 along the river to the application site within McInnis Canyons NCA.

“We want them to gain an appreciation of [land] management and what goes into making those decisions—thinking critically about problems and how to solve them with the tools available,” said Grant-Hoffman. “Eventually we'd like to open up this program to everyone, but Grand Junction Central made sense as a potential pilot partner to help work out the kinks.”

And why is that?

“CCA has an established relationship with the AP Environmental Sciences program at Grand Junction Central, and a previous teacher was a teacher on the land for BLM a few years ago, so we already had that connection.”

Yet another example of a long-standing partnership paying dividends for students.


Mee Canyon with quote

How to Build Interest in Your Outdoor Education Program

The sad truth is that, despite the large number of great proposals for outdoor education programs out there, only a handful will receive the support they need to see the light of day. How can you ensure your project has the best chance of being accepted? Grant-Hoffman has some tips.

Develop strong partnerships

As the saying goes, “many hands make light work.” Strong, effective partnerships are the backbone of every good outdoor education program, and a main component of successfully implementing the Greening STEM model.

“Collaborative partnerships are absolutely essential,” said Grant-Hoffman. “[BLM] can't do it alone, CCA can't do it alone, the school district can't do it alone. It takes a full community effort.”

The key, Grant-Hoffman says, is to know what each party's goals are for the program and to structure your program to reach as many of those goals as possible. That way, everyone feels like their needs are understood and appreciated, and they'll be more inclined to work together again in the future.

“When we can bring in what management wants, what our non-profit partner wants, and what the school district wants and put all of that into a project, nine times out of ten you're going to have a really strong proposal for funding.”

Look for community needs

One of the best methods of ensuring your program makes an impact is by studying the needs of your community. Public and private parties will be more interested in providing resources if there are tangible benefits for the community that can be championed. This was what inspired Grant-Hoffman to partner with CCA on their Nature Knowledge Days flagship program.

“When we started, it was just a bunch of volunteers out talking with students, and we were struggling to increase participation,” said Grant-Hoffman. “We realized it was really hard for teachers to bring their students out for just a fun day outside.”

After looking into it, they discovered that transportation fees were a big issue. 

“Teachers only have a certain amount of funding for bussing to get places, and we found that by the time our program was starting, they had already spent their field trip budget. CCA was able to work with community partners to help cover those bus fees so that any class that wanted to come could come.”

Reach diverse audiences

Lately, there has been a big push by agencies like the National Park Serviceand NEEF—as well as groups like Diversify Outdoors to remove barriers to access and get more diverse groups of people outdoors. Educational programs that focus on traditionally underserved groups have a good chance of finding support both within and outside of your community.

“There is a pretty large Spanish-speaking population in our area, so we're working on translating our Junior Ranger programming into Spanish because we want to make it accessible to everyone,” said Grant-Hoffman. “If a kid goes on a field trip at McInnis and has a great time and wants to bring their family on the weekend, everyone should be able to participate in the program together.”

Promoting Public Lands Through Greening STEM Environmental Education Programs

According to BLM, 44% of students at Central High School are considered economically disadvantaged, leaving them with few opportunities to experience the outdoors without environmental education-focused programs like those that Grant-Hoffman helps organize. She hopes that these experiences will spark an interest in their studies and potentially a career in STEM.

“Everyone has a different learning style that works for them,” said Grant-Hoffman. “For some kids, being in the classroom and learning about invasive species in a lecture may be impactful. But for a lot of kids, they really need to get out and touch things and experience them in order to truly make a connection to the material. Then when they come back to the classroom, they find it's easier to get into the lesson because they remember what it was like firsthand.”

Ultimately, Grant-Hoffman continues to develop high-quality outdoor education programs because she wants to share her knowledge and dedication to stewardship with future generations. Through her work with BLM, she has a unique perspective on America's public lands that deserves to be shared with others.

“Public lands really are public,” said Grant-Hoffman. “We are the managers, but we manage them for the public, so the public needs to have a vested interest in these lands and let us know how they want those lands to be managed. The more informed they are, the better they can do that.”

Interested in implementing the Greening STEM model in your classroom? Visit NEEF's Greening STEM Hub for more information and download your free Idea Journal for Educators to help you plan your next project.