St. Columba teacher earns honors for environmental teaching methods

Science teacher Lu Boren was one of five teachers designated as a 2012 National Project Learning Tree Outstanding Educator. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Science teacher Lu Boren was one of five teachers designated as a 2012 National Project Learning Tree Outstanding Educator.

Hands-on, field work-based education is the hallmark of Lu Boren’s teaching style.

The middle school science teacher at St. Columba Catholic School takes her seventh-graders on river monitoring expeditions, studies the Missionary Ridge Fire as part of a forest ecology unit with her eight-graders and raises baby Colorado Chub in her classroom fish tank.

Her emphasis on experiential learning – as well as her work teaching others how to duplicate it – has earned her recognition from a national environmental education program as one of its five top educators this year.

Last month, Boren was named a 2012 National Outstanding Educator by Project Learning Tree, the environmental education program of the American Forest Foundation. More than 30,000 educators use the program. Boren has used the curriculum in her classroom for more than five years. In its own words, the program uses “trees and forests as ‘windows’ on the world” to help educators teach core subjects and incorporate stewardship and outdoor learning into their classes.

The curriculum’s mission fits into Boren’s philosophy on teaching.

“We are in such an incredible place, the kids learn so much better when we take them outside and allow them to touch, feel and experience,” she said.

One Project Learning Tree activity teaches students about competition and relationships among different trees in the forest. Students stand in an area and Boren sprinkles popsicle sticks among them to represent water, nutrients and sunshine. As they pick up popsicle sticks around them, students realize they each get a fair share of the resources if they stand farther apart, just as a forest functions better when trees aren’t growing on top of each other.

The curriculum allows students to come to their own conclusions through their own work, St. Columba Principal Kevin Chick said.

Boren also teaches workshops based on the curriculum for other teachers around the area. One workshop about teaching fire ecology attracted 26 teachers from Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

Her work has led St. Columba to become a Project Learning Tree Green School, with students and staff investigating energy and water use, waste output, recycling and environmental quality to find ways to reduce the school’s environmental footprint.

Through this curriculum, students leave with a better awareness of the place they live and an ability to connect their learning to the environment around them, Boren said. This knowledge may alter their decisions or their voting choices in the future, she said.

They learn to “look at the world around them differently,” she said.