ECO-ACT

The Saigh Foundation ECO-ACT Environmental Leadership Program

Introduction

Since 1981, the ECO-ACT Environmental Leadership Program at the Missouri Botanical Garden has educated high school and elementary students in ecology and environmental science. This unique program has become a stepping stone for introducing students to educational and/or environmental careers, as well as becoming role models and ecologically literate citizens. The ECO-ACT program has impacted the environmental awareness of thousands of St. Louis area high school and elementary students.

History

ECO-ACT was designed by Missouri Botanical Garden staff and began operation in 1981. The Saigh Foundation generously endowed the program in 2008.  Additional gifts include donations by the Eleanor and Henry Hitchcock Charitable Foundation, the Crawford-Taylor Foundation, Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund and The Trio Foundation of St. Louis. Currently, participating high schools and districts that support student involvement in ECO-ACT include: Crossroads College Preparatory School,  Nerinx Hall, St. Elizabeth Academy, St. Mary’s, and St. Louis Public Schools (Gateway High as well as elementary schools). Additional partners include various catholic elementary schools and elementary schools in the Webster Groves School District.  Over the years, previous partnering schools have included the Parkway, Kirkwood, and University City School Districts, as well as Roosevelt, and St. Louis University High.

In the more than thirty years ECO-ACT has been operating, over 1,300 high school students and nearly 15,000 elementary students have participated in the program.  In 1983, ECO-ACT was awarded the “Exemplary Science Program Award” by the Search for Excellence in Science Education sponsored by the National Science Teachers Association.  More recently, the program was recognized by CEEGR—Choose Environmental Excellence, Gateway Region.

Goals

  • Encouraging critical investigation of environmental issues and increasing understanding in ecology
  • Training high school students as effective environmental educators
  • Improving students’ presentation and communication skills with varied audiences
  • Preparing participants to be responsible, contributing team members
  • Enhancing personal leadership skills and self-confidence
  • Promoting group and personal action on behalf of the environment
  • Encouraging students to experience and appreciate their connection to the natural world
  • Challenging students to leave their comfort zones through a variety of new experiences
  • Supporting self-discovery
  • Making meaningful connections among St. Louis Area teens and broadening their sense of community

Program Design

Recruitment: ECO-ACT staff recruits participants through visits to area high schools. Staff work closely with high school science teachers and counselors to identify students who might be interested. An informational session at each participating high school allows students to gain greater insight into the program’s diverse activities and the level of commitment required. Interested students complete and submit an application, including two teacher references, and are interviewed individually by program staff.

Selection Program staff schedule personal interviews with all applicants. Students are asked why they want to participate in ECO-ACT, what they hope to gain from the program, what strengths they can contribute to the group, what weaknesses they would like to work on and what experiences they have had working with children. Students are selected based on their levels of interest, positive attitude, motivation, references and maturity. All students selected from a particular school are supervised by a high school teacher from that school and receive either course or community service credit for their work.

Summer Training Program for High School Students  High school students participate in a three-week summer training program. The first two weeks are offered twice with approximately 15 students in each session. The final week is attended by all participants simultaneously. Each student’s total summer commitment is approximately 120 hours.

During week one, the students investigate urban environmental issues. Each team of students selects an issue and uses public transportation to interview local environmental professionals. In addition to interviewing experts on both sides of an issue, groups conduct research using Internet and printed sources for additional background information. Finally, they must focus more closely on their issue by writing research questions that can be addressed by a questionnaire. The questionnaire is administered to an appropriate number of people and audience, and the results from this survey are tabulated with conclusions, inferences and recommendations. The week culminates with a presentation using visuals and graphs to illustrate the main conclusions of each group.

During week two, the focus shifts to ecology and outdoor living skills. The first day of this week is spent at the Shaw Nature Reserve studying aquatic ecology and netting at a wetland, bird identification, and nature observations of native plants. Further study occurs during a three-day, two-night canoe trip on the Meramec River. Students also learn minimum impact camping techniques, teamwork and leadership skills, and canoe skill and safety

The final week of the summer training includes basic teacher training with each participant planning and presenting a lesson. Peer teaching provides opportunities for each teaching team to practice their teaching skills and receive constructive feedback. Additionally, students receive training through a series of workshops on topics such as classroom management, learning styles and diversity.

School Year Training for High School Students  Ten workshops are conducted during the school year for the high school students where they continue their training. Participants are introduced to specific teaching units, and the upcoming unit’s activities are emphasized. Dialogue about local environmental concerns and teaching techniques and tips are continued during the workshops. Guest speakers may be invited to speak on various topics such as climate change and environmental leadership.

Each high school student also spends two weekends during the school year participating in outdoor activities.  Choices for these weekends may include rock climbing, biking, and horseback riding.  Regardless of the selection, principal objectives are to build group cohesiveness, individual leadership skills, appreciation of the natural world, and personal challenge.

Leadership Experience with Elementary Students The extensive training program enables the high schools students to become teachers and role models for fourth grade students. At each participating high school the students are divided into teaching teams of two to four students and are assigned to teach at nearby elementary schools. They work with the same classes throughout the school year teaching a total of 30 lessons, one per week for 30 weeks. The units include What is Ecology, Ecosystem Interactions, Plants and Animals, Water, Energy and Environmental Action. The curriculum emphasizes local environmental issues, conservation and personal environmental action. Each unit is correlated to the Missouri Grade Level Expectations to assist in collaborating with classroom teachers.

In addition to classroom experiences, the elementary students participate in field study of ecological concepts on two visits to the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center in Ladue, Mo., led by their high school mentors. These field experiences help bring to life many of the concepts taught in the classroom.

Environmental Issue Investigation Finally, ECO-ACT students identify, research and take action on a specific St. Louis environmental issue. This first semester portion of the project follows the model established during week one of their summer experience and focuses on research.  Because more time is available during the school year the results are considerably more elaborate and detailed.  This project culminates in the design of an environmental action project in the second semester in which high school students take focused group action to positively affect the issue they have researched.

Results

The impact of ECO-ACT on participating students has been assessed each year through personal observations of students, through evaluations completed by students and their high school sponsoring teachers, and through evaluations completed by elementary teachers in whose classrooms the participants work.  Additionally, ECO-ACT graduates are surveyed to assess the impact of the program on them after they leave high school.  Program assessment continues to support the following conclusions. 

High school students who complete the ECO-ACT program:

  • Show an expanded understanding of ecological principles.
  • Demonstrate an increased awareness of the natural world and the complexity of environmental issues affecting it.
  • Demonstrate an increased comfort level in public speaking.
  • Are more willing and comfortable in approaching challenging situations.
  • Demonstrate more leadership and organizational skills in high school.
  • Are better able to work in teams and cooperate with other team members.
  • Join environmental organizations after high school at a higher rate than their peers.
  • Read environmental magazines at a higher rate than their peers.

Elementary students whom ECO-ACT participants teach:

  • Have shown an expanded understanding of ecological principles.
  • Are provided with positive role models to whom the younger children relate.
  • Will more than likely become an ECO-ACT high school participant.

ECO-ACT Student Quotes:

  • "ECO-ACT made me aware of what we are doing to our planet, and how we can improve our world."
  • "By taking ECO-ACT, I have realized that I can do just about anything if the circumstances call for it."
  • "As the elementary students learned about the environment, I, too, learned things that I did not know before."
  • "I would like to continue staying connected to nature in college, and if I hadn’t taken this class I don’t know if I would have realized this desire."
  • "I now understand and have a sense that I do really want to work with kids, to be a part of their lives.”
  • "What I want to remember from ECO-ACT are the children’s anxious faces, the way they lit up when my teaching team walked into their classroom, and the way they’d smile at us, laugh at us, learn from us, and look up to us.”
  • "ECO-ACT taught me to be more open and less quick to judge others.”
  • "The elementary students have brightened my outlook for tomorrow."