New Coalition Expands Access to Environmental Education to Students Across Northern Arizona

Arizona Daily Star ~ August 5, 2023 ~ by Adrian Skabelund

New Coalition Expands Access to Environmental Education to Students Across Northern Arizona

With thousands of children preparing to return to the classroom across Flagstaff next week, a new coalition is working to better connect northern Arizona students to outdoor and environmental educational opportunities.

The Environmental Education Coalition, spearheaded by the City of Flagstaff’s Open Space Division and the Arizona Trail Association, is hoping to streamline access to environmental education and outdoor experiences.

In March, representatives from 25 organizations and city divisions offering environmental education kicked off the coalition, said City Open Space Coordinator Sylvia Struss.

The hope is that the coalition can not only become the one-stop shop for teachers looking to connect their classrooms with many field trips and environmental lessons, but also coordinate those lessons between the organizations that provide them, she said.

To that end, in recent weeks the coalition has been dropping off binders full of educational opportunities to schools and teachers throughout Flagstaff, said Clay Showalter with the Arizona Trail Association’s Seeds of Stewardship program.

Showalter said he has already given binders to 14 schools that he had been working with through the Seeds of Stewardship program.

“The reason we’re doing the binders is so that we don’t have 30 different organizations trying to approach teachers about the different programs that they have available — which I think is how everybody’s been doing it in the past,” she said.

Those binders have everything from information on free girls mountain biking programs to ways to work with the International Raptor Research and Conservation Center to bring a raptor to the school, and programs with Terra Bird, which focuses on native plants and gardening, Showalter said.

Struss said the coalition and the binders they’re distributing also allow teachers of K-12 grades to still have that one-stop shop for all kinds of programs designed for different ages.

For example, she said the city works with Willow Bend to provide every third-grade class a field trip to Picture Canyon.

But now, at the end of that field trip, Struss said, she can point a teacher or school administrator to one place where similar educational opportunities can be found for fourth- or fifth-graders as well.

While an organization like Tinkertopia can focus on elementary school students, City Open Space programs can continue to focus on experiences for fifth- through 12th-grade students, helping to ensure a continuum of education throughout a student’s education, she said.

More than streamlining communication with schools and teachers to provide environmental education, Struss said they hope the coalition will also help coordinate between organizations on what kinds of lessons and experiences are offered.

“It’s not just about reaching out to the teachers, it’s also about partnering together on lesson plans. So if the Forest Service has a lesson on mushrooms or something, and they’re already doing it, I don’t want to have to rebuild the wheel. And I can use their lesson plan or we can partner together and do it with particular classrooms,” Struss said.

So far the reception from educators to the coalition and new resource has been positive, Showalter said.

“Just yesterday, I visited Flagstaff Arts Leadership Academy. They have a new outdoor explorations teacher who asked me […] ‘Hey, are there any other organizations you can recommend?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I have this binder with 14 different programs that could possibly work well for your middle school students and here’s this resource.’ And she said she’s going to go through them all and was very, very excited,” he said. “So just realizing that there’s such a need and teachers are excited to bring these types of opportunities to their students, but they’re already busy enough, they’re overworked, they’re underpaid. We’re realizing having this resource right there, to them, has been very exciting.”

In addition to the binders, Struss said, the coalition hopes to build out a new website where additional educational lessons and opportunities can be found, all in one place, as well as a newsletter.

“The City of Flagstaff open space program has probably 30 different outdoor education lesson plans on our website — which are free and available to use by anybody. Flagstaff STEM City also has lesson plans on their website. The Forest Service also has lesson plans on their website,” Struss said. “So can we figure out a joint space to put all of those lesson plans to make it easier for both teachers and parents to find those science-related outdoor education lesson plans?”

The coalition comes at an important time, Showalter said. He strongly believes that while environmental education has always been critical, it is more important than ever before.

Whether it’s through wildfires, post-fire flooding, drought or record temperatures, children and students are already seeing and experiencing the impacts of climate change, he said.

And that’s all on top of what they may be overhearing at the dinner table, or from news on the radio or social media.

“So having these direct and open conversations with young people, especially middle-schoolers — which is my favorite age to work with — and acknowledging now there’s some really, really difficult times presently, as well as ahead, and helping them understand the processes behind these things […] can actually make a difference,” Showalter said.

Additionally, getting students outside and active has long shown to have positive impacts on mental health for those of all ages.

Sylvia said she hopes the coalition will continue to cultivate generations of civically minded kids who can help take care of the outdoors.

“If people in general — but kids especially — are regularly outdoors, in places like open space or in the forest, they are going to care about it. So they will become stewards of the land. Even if it’s as we’re going out on a field trip with their class, they’re noticing that there’s trash and picking that up; that kind of gets that inside them,” Struss said.

The coalition’s next meeting is Monday, Sept. 11, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Aquaplex Community Room.

For more information on the coalition, Struss can be reached at