EPA grant supports environmental education at El Paso high schools

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Wetlands along the Rio Grande have long been in decline, but a group of El Paso students are restoring this vital habitat for migratory birds and Chihuahuan Desert plants and animals.

Rather than just reading a textbook about water issues, students from local high schools are getting involved in wetland restoration efforts at Rio Bosque Park and Keystone Heritage Park.

“Most people don’t realize that much of this area used to be wetlands,” said Emilio Ceballos, a senior at Cathedral High School and a member of the Environmental Stewardship Club. “But it shows how quickly things can change and how much we affect our living space.”

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded Insights El Paso a $100,000 grant in October 2018 to expand the environmental science curriculum and start environmental protection clubs at Cathedral and Del Valle High Schools. The Student-Led Environmental Initiative (SESI) provides students with a hands-on introduction to local environmental issues, from learning about native species to discussing the impact of the Asarco Hut. Originally a two-year scholarship due to end in 2021, funding has been extended to this school year because of the pandemic.

“The curriculum was invaluable to my class,” said Daniel Esparza, who teaches Advanced (AP) Environmental Sciences at Cathedral High School. “Students are able to take responsibility for their learning because they are able to relate to the material.”

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Connection to the local environment

On a Friday morning this month, Cathedral Growing with Sara’s AP Environmental Science class visited Farm and Bodega Loya in Socorro. Owners Marty and Ralph Loya explained how they grow vegetables using organic methods in the arid desert climate.

They introduced students to vegetables like chard and purple carrots, which many had never tried before, and more familiar items like cilantro and onions. Jennifer Ramos-Chavez of Insights El Paso said many students had never visited a working farm or observed migratory birds in El Paso prior to the SESI field trips.

Students from Cathedral High School's Environmental Stewardship Club help pull weeds at the Growing with Sara Farm in Socorro, Texas on Friday, April 8, 2022.

Ramos-Chavez did field research in Indonesia for her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UTEP. After graduating, she decided to apply her expertise back home in El Paso as an environmental education manager at Insights El Paso, a nonprofit organization that promotes science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math.

Environmental education often focuses on the big picture, and textbooks standardize instruction for students across the country. Ramos-Chavez explained that a textbook lesson on watersheds could use examples relevant to a state like Michigan, but a far cry from the arid Southwest.

With local partners including Frontera Land Alliance and Friends of the Rio Bosque, the SESI curriculum and field trips introduce students to the rich ecology in their own backyard.

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Marty Loya gives students from Cathedral High School's Environmental Stewardship Club a tour at the Growing with Sara Farm in Socorro, Texas on Friday, April 8, 2022.

Students lead wetland restoration projects

Students from Cathedral High School were tasked with ecological restoration and habitat conservation at Keystone Wetlands Park, a 52-acre park at 4220 Doniphan Drive.

Del Valle students lead their own project at Rio Bosque Park at 10716 Socorro Road.

According to the El Paso/Trans-Peco Audobon Society, 200 species of migratory and resident birds and 22 rare birds have been sighted at Keystone. The students went on a field trip to learn how to measure bird activity and understand their importance to an ecosystem.

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Members of the Cathedral Environmental Stewardship Club identified parts of the park that needed more water to thrive. They spent several months developing the restoration proposal and conducted several site visits.

“Wetlands are fragile. Conditions change often and you have to adapt to them,” said Pedro Ochoa, senior and club member. “So we had to figure out how to make this work?”

They chose mound culture, a permaculture practice that involves building mounds of mulch and other biomass, which acts like a sponge and retains water. Dozens of students took part in work days at Keystone beginning in fall 2021.

A Cathedral High School junior helps out on Friday, March 8th.

“It’s a habitat, there are so many creatures in the wetlands,” said classmate Sergio Monarrez. “These plants, animals, they have a right to habitat.”

Esparza, her teacher, said that instead of just studying to do well on an AP test, students are connected to environmental issues that affect them and their hometown. Students living in Juárez have noted how the region’s reliance on cars contributes to air pollution. Through lessons in environmental justice, they saw how environmental pressures, such as pollution from industrial sites, were concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods. They learned how good a carrot freshly pulled from the ground can taste.

“Students can relate to what they’re learning because we’re dealing with those issues here in El Paso,” Esparza said. “They ran with it.”

Ecological restoration takes more than a school year, but students say they can make a difference over time.

“A lot of people don’t get involved in environmental activities because they think, ‘It’s just me, why should I recycle?'” Ochoa said. “But even with just 20 high school kids, you can see the impact. Change is possible.”

The SESI syllabus can be used on the Insights El Paso website.

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Students from Cathedral High School's Environmental Stewardship Club help weed vegetable beds at Growing with Sara Farm in Socorro, Texas on Friday, April 8, 2022.
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