Light a Fire 2017: Most with the Least

This Tiny Nonprofit Brings Environmental Ed to Kids across Portland

Students get dirty with Ecology in Classrooms & Outdoors.

By Benjamin Tepler October 16, 2017 Published in the November 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Kids participating in an ECO class

Think you’ve got a full plate? Last school year, a grand total of four part-time instructors from Ecology in Classrooms and Outdoors taught more than 2,500 students in 84 classrooms—and took those students on 60 field trips around the city. It’s as tough a job as it sounds. But ECO’s work is a godsend for the public schools and science-hungry kids it reaches.

Cofounders Bethany Thomas and Sarah Bercume started ECO in 2005, targeting a gap in environmental education in elementary schools around the city. Over the next 12 years, a small crew of environmental educators and volunteers has focused on students from low-income families who can’t afford after-school nature camps, and who might not be exposed to the sciences until later in life.

Michelle Dawkins, a teacher at Corbett Elementary for the past 23 years, has seen ECO students head off to college to study environmental science. “Our students get super excited when the ‘ECO Ladies’ come around,” she says. “They definitely take what they learn in the classroom and bring it home with them.”

Over 12 weeks, ECO teams up with local organizations and agencies, like Portland Parks and Recreation, to help direct students to wild areas and to load up on shovels, gloves, and mulch. A classroom unit on native and invasive Pacific Northwest species might lead to a boots-on-the-ground trip out to Powell Butte to uproot weeds and plant new seeds.

Thomas, who attended Multnomah County’s Outdoor School as a child, hopes ECO can function as a kind of step-ladder to Oregon’s now state-mandated outdoor school for fifth and sixth graders. “Not only do we bring in science, but what we hope is going to be a love for nature,” she says. “We’re planting a seed that can grow as they get older.”

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