It was observing how disconnected from nature her students had become that prompted Gimli High School teacher Cheryl Bailey to take action a few years back.
“I saw them spending so much time with video games,” says Bailey who teaches biology and environmental science in the Evergreen School Division.
“When we talked about the environment around them, the general knowledge that I assumed everyone would have living in a rural community just didn’t seem to be there.”
They didn’t know the names of common bird and tree species in their area, for example.
It spurred Bailey to begin a native tree species planting project on the school grounds. She also started an Enviro Club for students. Soon to follow was development of an outdoor classroom, a school ‘learning garden’ and construction of a functional wetland for students to study.
Meanwhile, Penny Ross, divisional Aboriginal education co-ordinator for Evergreen’s eight schools since 2003, has been enabling K to Grade 12 students in the eight schools across the division to develop an Aboriginal perspective on sustainable land and water use. As author of children’s and young adult books along the same theme, she also mentors a 50-member Grade 8 to 12 Evergreen Aboriginal Group or Leaders in Education (EAGLE) program where students study the Seven Teachings, and learn about traditional and land and water use.
The two women were honoured by the Manitoba Conservation Districts Association in 2014 for their commitment to environmental education and outdoor learning.
Eastern Interlake Conservation District has been a major partner with the division and helped drive their environmental education initiatives forward, say the two women, who also wrote the Lake Friendly H20iQ to help students explore issues related to water and the Lake Winnipeg watershed.
It’s piqued their interest and really helped them connect to what they see going on literally in their own backyard, Ross says.
“We live right here on the lake. They can actually see what’s happening with it because we’re so close to it,” she said.
Gimli High School’s outdoor classroom, meanwhile, is built into a courtyard of the school where students can now study in the midst of plantings of native flowers. The school’s learning garden is for science experiments too.
“We’re trying as much as possible to enhance our outdoor environment,” adds Bailey.
Evergreen School Division was among the very earliest in Manitoba to incorporate Aboriginal studies into its K to 12 curriculum and the division is recognized as a leader in sustainability education in Manitoba.
It has paid off. At one time, students couldn’t name common tree and bird species of the Interlake. Now the two educators regularly hear of students making plans for environmental studies after high school and going on to pursue career paths in conservation.
“We’ve seen how it influences how people live their lives and the choices that they make,” Bailey said.