EPA grant supports environmental education in El Paso high schools

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

Instead of just reading about water issues in a textbook, local high school students are joining wetland restoration efforts at Rio Bosque Park and Keystone Heritage Park.

“Most people don’t realize that much of this area was once 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 where we live.”

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded Insights El Paso a $100,000 grant in October 2018 to increase the environmental science curriculum and establish environmental stewardship clubs at Cathedral and Del Valle high schools. The Student-Led Environmental Initiative (SESI) gives students a hands-on introduction to local environmental issues, from learning about native species to debating the impacts of the Asarco smelter. Originally a two-year grant that was due to end in 2021, funding was extended until this school year due to the pandemic.

“The program has been invaluable to my class,” said Daniel Esparza, who teaches environmental science in advanced placement (AP) at Cathedral High School. “Students are able to take ownership of their learning because they are able to identify with the material.”

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Connect to the local environment

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

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

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

Ramos-Chavez conducted field research in Indonesia for his PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology at UTEP. After graduating, she chose to apply her expertise at home in El Paso, serving as environmental education manager at Insights El Paso, a nonprofit organization that promotes science education, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

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

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

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

Students lead wetland restoration projects

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

Del Valle students are doing 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 local 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 its importance to an ecosystem.

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

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

They decided to use Hügelkultur, a permaculture practice that involves building mounds of mulch and other biomass to act as a sponge and retain water. Dozens of students have joined Labor Days at Keystone beginning in fall 2021.

A junior from Cathedral High School helps weed a bed of vegetables as a farm dog watches Friday, April 8, 2022 at Growing with Sara Farm in Socorro, Texas.

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

Esparza, their teacher, said that instead of studying just to pass an AP test, the students connected with environmental issues that affected them and their hometown. Students living in Juárez have noticed how reliance on cars in the area contributes to air pollution. Through lessons on environmental justice, they saw how environmental burdens, like pollution from industrial sites, are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods. They learned how tasty a freshly picked carrot can be.

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

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

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

The SESI program is available on the Insights El Paso website.

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