Environmental Learning Center a lab for science educators and stewards of the natural world

Students explore the Environmental Learning Center
Middle school students learn about wildlife monitoring during an E-CAMP at Colorado State University’s Environmental Learning Center. Photos by Bill Cotton/CSU 

It’s a sunny Friday morning and it’s a school-out day.

But down Drake Road and across the bridge, there’s still a lot of learning going on. Middle schoolers are busy, long mist net poles in hand, discovering which birds call Fort Collins home. The day’s activities are part of the E-CAMP programming offered every year during Poudre School District school-out days by Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources and the Environmental Learning Center.

The ELC, with offices on CSU’s main campus and the learning center on 212 acres of cottonwood forest, riparian areas, and prairie grasslands along the Cache la Poudre River, operates as an outreach arm from Warner College to the community, while functioning as a learning lab for CSU students.

The ELC offers future environmental educators the opportunity to share what they know with younger learners. The rich experience of translating scientific knowledge for children, teaching and leading programming, and logging hands-on educator work hours, prepares students for a wide variety of career possibilities in natural resources education and communications. At the ELC, students build the programming and lead it while acquiring leadership skills and forging relationships with mentors and peers.

“E-CAMP is led by enthusiastic college students with a lot of passion and energy to share,” said Nicole Stafford, director of the ELC, a Warner College alumna and an instructor in the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources department. “Their ability to connect with middle schoolers far exceeds that of ‘real’ adults.”

College student as teacher

CSU student Kiera Denehan
Colorado State University Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology student Kiera Denehan leads a group of middle school students during an E-CAMP at the ELC.

Kiera Denehan, who is studying conservation biology with Warner College and is set to graduate in May 2020, has worked with the ELC for one year and is leading the E-CAMP program this fall.

Denehan writes lesson plans and teaches. She tries to provide attendees with many hands-on opportunities and chances to explore the 200-plus acres of ELC property while also involving them in discussions and inquiries about the observations they make when in nature. She’s also quick to credit the ELC’s program director, Kristen Wilkinson, for her guidance and work to ensure the programs run smoothly.

“Some of my favorite moments from the ELC are those where I get to share experiences like catching bugs or looking at the difference between plants up close and see the excitement and natural curiosity kids have for the world around them,” said Denehan. “This year, our E-CAMPs are focused on teaching participants about the different ways scientists study wildlife and will allow them to use some of these tools. I am very excited to see how the kids react to these interesting topics and to facilitate discussions about how and why we study wildlife.”

Stafford explains that through the E-CAMP program, participants get to meet other kids their age with similar interests. They get outside to observe the natural world and interact with peers and positive role models. Campers gain early exposure to environment/natural resource-related careers and ideas that often aren’t discovered until the college years. Then they get to practice those skills and begin to contemplate complex issues and see themselves as problem-solvers.

“This program is kind of the next step for kids who are interested in the environment,” said Stafford. “Ultimately, we’d love to see these kids as future leaders in natural resources — having taken a connection that we helped foster and turned it into a commitment to a sustainable future for our planet.”

Denehan hopes to teach environmental education in an urban area after graduation.

Kristen Wilkinson, ELC program director
Colorado State University Environmental Learning Center Program Director Kristen Wilkinson mentors CSU students to lead programming at the ELC.

“I have learned a lot of things during my time at the ELC. I have learned to be a confident public speaker, to be unabashedly passionate about my interests and I have learned of my newfound passion in environmental education,” said Denehan. “When teaching children, I have learned very valuable lessons from listening to their curiosity and view of the world.”

Learn more about ELC E-CAMP

Exclusively for students in grades 6-8 to go on outdoor adventures, develop outdoor skills and gain positive experiences in the natural world. $25 per child. Registration is required on the ELC website.

October 11: Night Hike

6:30-10 p.m.

Explore the ELC trails at night, eat s’mores, and learn about owls, bats and other nocturnal animals.

October 18: Invertebrates

8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Look for insects, arachnids and arthropods at the ELC and explore how they fit into our unique ecosystems.

November 11: Mammals

8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Field trip to learn about tools that wildlife biologists use to track and study mammals.