Middle Schoolers in Nature, for Nature

On October 3, 2019, 132 students from Mount Elden Middle School’s 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classes visited Campbell Mesa to learn about human relationships with nature and our impacts on the environment. Campbell Mesa features 5 loop trails, which connect to the Arizona Trail’s Walnut Canyon and Elden Mountain Passages.

Students rotated between four activities, wherein they explored resource management ethics; reflected upon their personal connection to nature; learned Leave No Trace principles; and practiced interpreting stories as naturalists.

On the Continental Trail, students were challenged to think like naturalists, making observations and inferences in order to tell the story of what happened on the land and what is going on today. First, we observed a juniper tree, brimming with berries. Each student picked a berry, squished it between their fingers, exclaimed about how gooey it was, and noted its sappy smell; we discussed the anthropological uses of juniper trees: for medicine, beads, and ceremony. Moving along the trail, we paused to learn about what lichen is and how it indicates air quality. We also unpacked the story of rabbitbrush and the curious cottonball-like growths on its stems. Through making hypotheses, students were able to figure out that fruit flies housed their eggs in these growths, called galls, in order to keep their eggs and larva safe through winter in Flagstaff. Students also learned that rabbitbrush does well in disturbed areas and is helpful in restoring impacted places because its deep roots stabilize the soil and give back nutrients. Campbell Mesa’s presence of rabbitbrush led students to wonder, had people disrupted this land, and how?

In pairs of two, students identified as many signs of human impacts as possible. They found rusty cans, broken glass, footprints, trampled plants, powerlines, distant radio towers, cut stumps, and more. Students postulated why there were cut stumpsWas it for forest thinning? Because the trees had been infected by the bark beetle? Because the trees were dead and sat too close to the trail? We dove into Campbell Mesa’s history of logging and sheep herding, how the land once supported old growth ponderosa and Gamble’s oak and then became largely decimated. We then discussed how the Mesa went from being riddled with roads, campfire rings, and trash in the 1980’s to its current condition. Starting in the 1990’s, the Forest Service, multiple partners, and volunteers collaborated to close roads from mechanized use, convert roads into single track, and pick up litter. Thanks to their efforts, more plants and animals could have a lasting home close to Flagstaff, and we were able to recreate in this relatively restored area.

The major take-away from the hike and the day overall was that, as people, we have an impact on the landbut we have the power to choose what those impacts look like. While we take from nature and affect the livelihoods of plants and animals, we also have the ability to limit our footprint on this planet and give back.

Mount Elden Middle Schoolers are already delving deeper into these lessons. After lunch, all food waste and trash was collected. Mt. Elden teachers brought the bag back to school, where they’ll go through the waste with the students, sorting out what can be recycled and composted. They’ll discuss what will end up in the landfill and how they can reduce their waste. Students will then come up with a plan on how to reduce their school’s environmental footprint.

ATA leaders are excited about how our this outing was integrated with the school’s curriculum, and we look forward to seeing how Mount Elden Middle Schoolers carry the day’s lessons forward.