Wildlife as a classroom

Learning outdoors evokes action.


Sarah Heiden

During their third all day field trip to Sauvie Island, students watch a red-breasted sapsucker in a nearby tree.

Launched into nature, AP Environmental Science students get hands on experience outside the classroom. Unexpected circumstances lead to unplanned adventures, while also increasing students’ love and understanding of the natural world, which is most important, according to Geoff Bingham, mechanical engineering, environmental science and geology of the Pacific Northwest teacher.

Jonathan Davies, Jim Hartmann and their students watch a pair of bald eagles on a far away tree branch, along with a wetland full of ducks and geese.

“If we don’t take care of the planet, we’ll have nowhere to live. I think all kids should be ecologically literate and be aware of how the natural world plays into our lives,” Bingham said. “In today’s society, we are way disconnected from that, and a lot of people don’t understand how we are interconnected to what happens in the environment.”


While taking various shuttle trips to local parks and wildlife reservations like Goat Island, students go on five all-day field trips throughout the year. There are four AP Envi-Sci periods, so generally, a field trip will span two days; half of the students going one day and the remaining the next. There are three field trips in the winter and two trips in the spring.


Due to a massive forest fire, students were unable to go to Eagle Creek this year, which was a favorite field trip location, according to Jonathan Davies. The two fall field trips that were held in the Gorge, the amphibian and salmon field trips, had to be relocated to Old Growth Forest by Mount Hood and the Tillamook National Forest.


 Geoff Bingham, Jim Hartmann and Jonathan Davies chaperone the trips. All of them are teachers of environmental science classes (Hartmann and Davies teach AP environmental science). Luckily, they know a great bus driver, Betty, who is able to quickly adjust to these changing circumstances and deliver everyone safely to their destination.


“Betty the bus driver has been driving for longer than Yoda’s been alive, I think,” Davies said. “She is insanely patient with us. She knows where we are going; we don’t even have to explain it to her.”


The first field trip of the school year, which took place on Sept. 21 and 22, was set to focus on amphibians. A little over an hour drive to Old Growth Forest did not yield the excitement students were hoping for. Although the habitat seemed perfect for frog spotting, there were almost none to be found.


“It is a wet and soggy place in the forest,” Davies said, “There should have been plenty of amphibs there.”

Student searches for frogs on the first AP Envi-Sci field trip.

Even though students didn’t see many amphibians, the field trip was still filled with outdoor discoveries and other wildlife.


“[This field trip] led us to see what sort of life is around us,” Cole Ball, senior, said, “And it is really important to know that.”


The first group of students to go out found several salamanders. They also got to eat lunch on a tall bridge over a flowing river, where they spotted a few salmon.


“We had looked at Elizabeth Kolbert’s book ‘The Sixth Extinction,’ and one of the things she highlights is the disappearance of amphibians,” Davies said. “They are dependent with that sensitive skin on water and [they are] just much more sensitive to environmental toxins or changes. Looking at amphibs and understanding where they are; a lot of students have never held a frog in their hand, never seen a salamander in the wild, and research shows that people who spend more time in nature, care more about nature.”


The second field trip of the year took place on Oct. 23 and 24. Students journeyed to Tillamook National Forest on their salmon field trip. The long drive took an hour and a half each way, and unfortunately, heavy rain the previous days caused the Wilson River to flood. Unable to travel down to the river, Davies, Hartmann and Bingham devised a different plan.


“Where we should have had pools that we could’ve gotten down to on the Wilson River, it was rushing torrent, so we had to do a Plan B off of a Plan B (Plan A being Eagle Creek). So we went out and we found a little creek.” Davies said. “It was a fantastic, little riparian habitat. We found all the indicators to tell us: healthy water. But, we didn’t get to see salmon.”


However, they did spot a bear. The bear they found was scrounging for food in the garbage cans beside the outhouse. Since the bear was roaming around in broad daylight and seemed to be habituated to people, it may end up being put down. To end this problem, Davies offered a solution:


“If there had been some bear-proof garbage cans, which are readily available, and widely tested in all of our national parks, [this problem] could [be prevented].”


Jonathan Davies
A student places their hand beside a fresh bear paw print.


The third, and final semester one field trip, took the students out to Sauvie Island on Dec. 4 and 5. Sauvie Island is a well known birding location near Portland. They saw over 50 species of birds, including the sandhill cranes, red-breasted sapsuckers, and some cinnamon teals. Cinnamon teals are not usually seen on Sauvie Island, to Bingham, who spotted the birds, it was a special treat.


“[Birding] takes a lot of patience,” Davies said. “We hit some wetlands, we saw a lot of water birds, we saw a bunch of woodland birds as well.”

Sarah Heiden
A small tree frog touches the hand of a student.
Sarah Heiden
Looking through a spotting scope, a large bird perches on a tree.

On these field trips, students saw an abundance of wildlife. Which helped maintain their sole purpose: to connect with nature, a goal that is becoming increasingly important.


“I think nature is in real trouble, and I don’t think we are going to fix it if we don’t love it,” Hartmann said. “Our culture has gotten more and more separated from nature. Kids are used to sitting indoors and experiencing things through lectures or books or movies, even hands on activities indoors, but none of that takes the place of outdoor direct experience.”


Bringing students outside and teaching them about the importance of the natural world, makes a big difference in many students lives, and it encourages them to make a change.

Sarah Heiden
Students trek through the wilderness of Sauvie Island in search of wildlife.

“At first [environmental science] wasn’t something that was important to me,” Emily Martin, senior, said. “Until I started digging into the causes that we were talking about, and just thinking about the state of the environment, and where it is going. I want to try and figure out ways that I can understand it, and see if there is any way I can help fix it.”

Sarah Heiden