By Nikki Muench
I started working at The Watershed Project as a Climate Corps AmeriCorps fellow in December 2016 as part of the Education Team, teaching and redesigning curriculum and offering program evaluation development for the high school programs as well as elementary and middle school programs. Growing up in Albany, California and spending countless weekends at the beach and camping among redwoods shaped me into an environmentally-passionate person who still hopes to enjoy jobs that let me be outside. I earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz in environmental studies and biology and more recently, a Master of Science from University of Michigan, specializing in environmental education and program evaluation. This summer, I will be using my experience to evaluate how effective our new high school curriculum is as part of our preparation for the next school year. This AmeriCorps fellowship is giving me hands-on experience working for a small non-profit, something that graduate school work alone hadn’t provided me. My teaching and program development experiences, from curriculum support to teacher coordination and everything in between, are supporting my growth as an educator and introducing me to the world of program development and all that it entails.
One of my first big projects in my fellowship was developing a new version of The Watershed Project’s longstanding Wild Oysters curriculum with my supervisor, Phaela Peck. We redesigned the curriculum to be student-focused rather than to be teacher-focused. We were intentional in designing different activities and projects for the students that achieve the program goals we developed; how well we did will show in our analysis of the evaluations. With this new iteration of the curriculum for the Wild Oysters program, the students are discovering information in small groups and applying it to questions, becoming experts on a particular topic related to oysters and teaching their classmates what they learned, using evidence to support their claim toward questions about aquaculture and farming, and applying all that they have learned from the classroom visits and field trips to a science seminar focused on two restoration sites for oysters. We packed a lot into four classroom lessons and 1-2 field trips for each class and have been very pleased with the outcomes we’ve seen from this year’s testing of the curriculum. We have already been brainstorming different ways to revise the curriculum, now that we have seen how different groups of students and teachers interact with the program, and we’re looking forward to improving the program even more for this upcoming school year.
As an environmental educator, it’s very important to me to connect people, especially young students, to their local environment. People notices changes in their local environment, but sometimes might not know how those local changes could be impacting the bigger picture of their state or country. The global scale of environmental problems can be daunting and can make people feel helpless because they are just one person who couldn’t possibly make a difference. Local engagement within a community, from providing habitat to local native pollinators to participating in street cleanups to support healthy watersheds, is feasible for everyone and anyone to participate in, and that is the context in which The Watershed Project works. Their mission connects with me and the context of my work as an educator and a nature-enthusiast and supports my work because I can engage with my own local environment on a scale that is relatable for students and community members.
As The Watershed Project continues to celebrate 20 years of success this year, I hope that the organization reaches out and connects with new audiences either through programming or community and volunteer events. From my experience working with other Climate Corps fellows and people who I went to high school and undergrad with who are in the area, The Watershed Project and other organizations like it are not well known by young professionals as providing opportunities for volunteering or even internships, so there may be an environmentally-conscious audience in the Bay Area that we haven’t connected with yet who would be very interested in participating in the work that The Watershed Project does. I hope that I am able to either provide insights into this audience or find ways to best connect them with The Watershed Project to grow our reach and build more watershed stewards in the area.