The power of a question: Whole Terrain interviews educator, Laurette Rogers

By Hanna Wheeler

It started with a question. One of Laurette Rogers’s fourth-graders asked how they could save endangered species. Rogers knew she needed a real answer, so she and her students started researching. They teamed up with ranchers, biologists and government agency representatives to launch a meaningful project: restoring habitat for the nearby, endangered California freshwater shrimp. Within six months, the project won national recognition, including the Anheuser-Busch Theme Parks Environmental Award.

Eighteen years later, Rogers has helped more than 28,000 students participate in over 300 stream bank restorations. Rogers is now the Watershed Education Director at the Bay Institute in Novato, California. She works with STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed), a project of the Bay Institute.  Her book, The California Freshwater Shrimp Project: An Example of Environmental Project-Based Learning, describes the shrimp project as a model of student engagement and community collaboration.

The shrimp project owes its success to collaboration, says Rogers. “Everyone can agree on the work even if they have different reasons for doing it,” she said. “It’s very humbling.”

Ranchers are key collaborators, and they serve as the backbone of the project. “The kids started it, but the ranchers pushed it to scale,” said Rogers.

Teachers are also collaborators. STRAW trains them to create a year-long context for watersheds and habitat restoration. Students create maps, do research, give presentations and create poetry and art work as part of the project. The restoration work— planting willows and other species— is the culminating event.

Rogers ensures that restoration projects are scientific and professional through the help of biologists and other experts. “All of our projects are professionally designed and quality controlled,” she emphasized. “It’s respectful to the children to show that we’re doing cutting-edge science with them.”

November is the start of Rogers’ restoration season. She leads two restorations a week for four months. Each restoration is kid-powered and involves about 100 people and about 350 plants per site. Imagine planning a large event. All the parts have to come together, everyone has to be engaged and, don’t forget, you should invite the press. Now imagine planning that event twice weekly for four solid months every year, and you’ll understand the amount of energy Rogers puts into her job. “Our personal lives take a hit,” she said, laughing.

Despite the huge amount of work, Rogers overflows with enthusiasm. It comes across as she describes the ranch animals on site (“Pigs of all sizes, running down hills with their ears waving. They’re so adorable!”), the teachable moments (“We even had a pile of mountain lion doo! We’re so lucky!), and the positive ecological change she’s seen (“Over the years, you start to make an impact. It’s really looking great!”).

But Rogers is most enthusiastic when describing the students. “Kids are competent people,” she said. “How can kids grow up to be leaders if they’re not allowed to be leaders as children?”

Rogers wrote her book to help others understand and appreciate this model. “There are benefits to this kind of learning. Allowing students to be resourceful brings these incredible results,” she said.

What kind of results has the shrimp project seen? You could start by looking at the original restoration site: Paul Martin’s ranch on Stemple Creek. Before the project, the ground was bare, the stream banks were eroding, and cattle were trampling the stream edges. Thanks to the efforts of Martin, Rogers and the students, the stream banks now are thick with willow and wildlife. Ornithologists have recorded an increase in birds from five species to over 28 species. And the habitat for the freshwater shrimp is expanded by miles.

Other indicators of success come from the students. The original shrimp project students completed surveys eight years later upon graduation. They all stated that the project helped them feel they could individually make a difference in environmental and ecological issues. Many of them cited increased environmental appreciation and self-direction as benefits of participating in the shrimp project.

Many of those students pursued careers in the environmental realm. Others went into politics or social activism. “They all believe they have a part they can play, and they do it. They’re really efficacious people,” said Rogers.

A former student recently emailed Rogers to thank her. I have diary entries from your class. Wanting to be a marine biologist, I remember writing furiously to express how excited I was about all you taught,” wrote the student, now 27. “Thank you so much for teaching me more than a college degree and four years of ‘real world’ work experience could have taught me. I will carry memories from your class always, and they continuously influence me.”

A documentary about the shrimp project came out in early 2010. A Simple Question follows the origins of the project and its successes. The film has won awards such as the Mammoth Mountain Film Fest’s “Best Educational Documentary” and the Wild and Scenic Film Fest’s “Spirit of Activism” award.

“Some people say they cry,” said Rogers. “They enjoy seeing something uplifting,” she said.

More importantly, the documentary is bringing attention to Rogers’ work and the STRAW model.

“We really want to serve as a model to others who are attempting similar things,” said Rogers. “People know about climate change but not about habitat restoration. That needs to change. [Habitat restoration] connects people to the earth. We can work in small ways to bring back ecological function.” Rogers says she hopes the film will funnel resources to STRAW.

When Rogers was a kid, she didn’t do well in science class. But she was always interested in nature. This project has helped her, as well as her students, learn that her love of nature can translate to a love of, and ability in, science. “It’s really gratifying to be in this field, to be learning about restoration and wildlife. I never thought I’d make my living in nature,” she said.

Rogers is the third generation of her family to live in the watershed she is restoring. “To be able to make your home better and be able to impact the things you worry about the most, to make some small movement towards healing is really amazing,” she said. “We have to get out there and start doing something. It changes our own attitude towards what we can do and how we see the future.”

Laurette Rogers  formerly taught fourth grade at Brookside School in San Anselmo, CA, where she was one of the teacher facilitators for an environmental project initiated by the students, the California Freshwater Shrimp Project. She is the Watershed Education Director at the Bay Institute and is the author of The California Freshwater Shrimp Project: An Example of Environmental Project-Based Learning.

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