A Living Laboratory Brings Learning Outside

We could all use a little good news right now. The looming specter of climate change, a seemingly endless global pandemic, a new generation that spends more time in the virtual world than the real one… current events conspire to paint a gloomy picture of the future. But before you fall into despair, you should meet the David Douglas High School students who come to the Leach Botanical Garden every month.

David Douglas High School students test Johnson Creek’s water quality at the Leach Botanical Garden.

The students, mostly juniors and seniors, come to take advantage of the Leach Botanical Garden’s “Back 5 Project,” an outdoor classroom and restoration project located just beyond the Garden’s carefully manicured paths. They’re part of David Douglas High School’s Natural Resources and Sustainability classes, two science courses that teach youth the skills and concepts they need to live and work in a more sustainable future. Johnson Creek Watershed Council staff, along with Leach Botanical Garden staff and other Back 5 Project partners, join the students at the Garden to give them hands-on lessons in science and stewardship.

The Back 5 Project launched in 2018 as a partnership between the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, the Leach Botanical Garden, Wisdom of the Elders, and The Blueprint Foundation, with the African Youth and Community Organization joining a year later. Their goal was to transform more than 3 acres of unmanaged land alongside the Garden–previously a pig farm– into a healthy native ecosystem and urban field station. 

David Douglas High School students practice native plant identification.

Since they began visiting the Back 5 in 2019, David Douglas High School students have had lessons in subjects like mindfulness, plant identification, and GPS mapping. They’ve also contributed hundreds of hours of work toward restoring the native ecosystem by removing invasive weeds and planting native plants. These experiences provide students some of the skills and knowledge needed for a career in STEM or the sustainability industry–but perhaps more importantly, they give students a tangible connection to nature.

Teenagers are notoriously apathetic, but these students are anything but disinterested. While sometimes out of their element in the outdoors, they’re still curious, engaged, and excited to be in the Back 5. Environmental education like the kind offered by the Johnson Creek Watershed Council may not cure a virus, but it’s a powerful antidote to the causes of ecological destruction and disconnection from nature. The Back 5 Project has given David Douglas High School students the chance to embrace environmental education in a big way–and we call that good news.

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