SKAMANIA — There’s a lot of talk around academia about providing students an education with a real-world application.
Anyone looking for an example would have found one on Tuesday when about 25 students from a Clark College environmental science class helped revegetate a community park with native plants they grew themselves.
The work took place at St. Cloud Park near Franz Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the Columbia River Gorge.
Robin Dobson, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said before the agency acquired the park in 1990 it was overcome with head-high blackberries and was a dumping ground for abandoned cars.
Today it’s thought to be one of the largest remaining natural wetlands in the Gorge, though it features a picnic area, recreational space and some walking trails. But problems with invasive plant species remain.
The classroom and laboratory work in the greenhouse of the environmental science class teaches students how to propagate native plants and about their role in the ecosystem.
But going out and planting the plants engages the students in the community and lets them see how their work relates to the real world.
“The students (got) to close the loop, so to speak,” said Clark College professor Kathleen Perillo.
Perillo said her ecology class used to focus on environmental degradation and human-caused ecological damage. That daunted Perillo, who felt like it wasn’t inspiring students to find solutions. So about eight years ago, she began to include a more optimistic angle to the curriculum by incorporating the greenhouse at Clark College.
“I thought, ‘Here’s my opportunity to have students engage in positive messages and things we can do,’ ” she said. “It can be doom and gloom when you talk about climate change and habitat loss.”
For many of them, taking the class is just a required stop along the way to their degree, but for some, it’s the first taste of a potential career in the environmental sciences.
“I’m hoping no matter what career they go on to, they’re going to take home the big-picture message that we all impact the environment,” Perillo said.
It’s a message that seems to be resonating.
Alejandro Aguilar, a Clark College student, said science classes are required, but he took this one because of its relevance to Washington state’s ecology.
“You hear a lot about restoration, but you don’t really do a lot for it or understand the process is besides the word,” he said. “Plus, I’m a hands-on learner, and it is giving me the experience and understanding of what it is and why it’s important.”
The students worked in collaboration with the nonprofit Center for Eco-Dynamic Restoration, or CEDR. The organization has worked since May to rehabilitate the 2-acre plot at St. Cloud using a grant funded by Skamania Lodge and the National Forest Foundation.
“Before we started, it was just filled with invasive weeds and non-native plants,” said Kiva Dobson, Robin Dobson’s son and the project’s coordinator.
“The goal is after a few years the native plants we put in will be able to compete with the invasive and shade them out,” he added. “Then it’ll be wildlife habitat.”
Dobson said the nonprofit buys its native plants from the Clark College nursery, so it seemed like a natural idea to simultaneously educate the students as well as meet the community-involvement requirements of the grant.
“It’s a great way to educate the students,” he said.