Celebrating Project Learning Tree: Highlights from Colorado

By Shawna Crocker, Colorado State Forest Service, Project Learning Tree Coordinator

What do the first Earth Day, the Space Race, the Oil Embargo and Old Growth Forests have to do with Project Learning Tree (PLT)?

In 1970, the first Earth Day occurred, raising awareness of the many issues and concerns about the state of our environment then.  Many emotional and controversial environmental issues and topics were raised, challenged, and studied. Protests and sit-ins called attention to the conditions of our forests, water, air, wildlife and more. This led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air and Water Acts, and the Endangered Species Act and more.  The beautiful photos of our “Blue Marble”, taken by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972, excited theworld about space exploration while calling attention to the need to take better care of our polluted planet.  Higher heating costs and long lines at gas stations were direct and personal impacts of the Energy Crisis and Arab Oil Embargo of that time.  And in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, protesters and others actively and passively challenged the way forest products companies and forest agencies managed public and private forests.  Clearly, there was a need for more public education about land use and management, forestry, watersheds, wildlife, fisheries, soils and much more.

Enter the American Forest Institute, now American Forest Foundation (AFF), which, in 1973, found a group of natural resource and education leaders in the western states who were busy writing much-needed energy curricula for teachers and students. When asked if this group would create a forest and environmental education program for teachers, they agreed to produce activities and lessons that would teach learners “how to think”, and not “what to think” about these topics.  Today, this is known as “inquiry” education.  Project Learning Tree was born!  Scientists and teachers were included in the writing, pilot testing, evaluation and training of these popular, inexpensive, accessible, interdisciplinary science-based materials and professional development. The timing was perfect, as educators were being asked to teach more science in response to growing interest and importance of international space exploration, energy and environmental awareness.  PLT provided accessible and outstanding workshops, facilitated by classroom teachers and natural resource professionals.  Activities were and still are welcomed by teacher training institutions because they include best practices in teaching methods and alignment to state and national education standards.  For 40 years, PLT has been responsive to the changing trends and standards in education, professional development and natural resources.

The first official PLT workshops were held in 1976, including one at the Lone Star School in Otis, Colorado.  This sparsely populated agricultural district in eastern Colorado might seem an unlikely location as it is far from our naturally forested lands!  Urban and agricultural uses of trees are important on the plains, however, and PLT’s broad reach of interdisciplinary content, addresses many other natural resource topics.  To celebrate PLT’s 40th anniversary, and to commemorate the first Colorado workshop, we are conducting another workshop there on September 17!

The Colorado State Forest Service entered into an MOU in 1985 with AFF to deliver PLT to Colorado educators.   As the state coordinator since 1993, following a long career as a science teacher, I have enjoyed developing our PLT program, working closely with local, state and national forestry and education organizations and agencies.  A core of approximately 40 certified facilitators, most of whom are volunteers, conduct PLT workshops for an average of 600 formal and nonformal educators, each year.

A recent enhancement to our Colorado PLT program is the opportunity to work with our CSFS Seedling Tree nursery and offer free seedlings to PLT-certified educators for school planting projects. Initially funded three years ago with a grant from the AFF, and now maintained with PLT workshop fees, 6,000 trees have been planted across the state by students from 30 schools.

An endearing story emerged this year at the environmentally focused “School in the Woods” located in the middle of the Black Forest burn area. Teachers have applied for and received 400 free trees each year.  This happens to be a Colorado “PLT School”; there are PLT facilitators on staff who regularly present workshops there.  It is located on many acres of burned forest, next to a regional park, and teachers work with CSFS foresters from our Woodland Park District each year to help the kids, parents and volunteers plant these trees. 

A CSFS forester has always brought his old drill-powered auger to dig the many holes for the seedlings.  This year, the school requested that students forgo giving all the teachers small “end of the year” gifts and instead pool their funds to help the school with a single more significant award.  Parents and students thought this was a great idea and bought the school an auger-one that doesn’t need to be powered by a drill!  I doubt that there are many schools anywhere that have an official school auger! 

The excitement for me about PLT is that there are always new challenges when working with our natural resources, whether they be forests or children! I love making connections, developing networks and helping everyone – teachers, grandparents, scout leaders, foresters, college students and professors- understand how important it is to educate all Colorado citizens about these critical topics. The Colorado State Forest Service provides a supportive and respected platform for this mission. The next 40 years will see more changes, challenges and successes. Stay tuned!

Learn more about Project Learning Tree in Colorado at www.plt.org/colorado. Learn about the forests of Colorado in the state Forest Action Plan at www.stateforesters.org/forest-action-plans/colorado.

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