Tina Niels, Watershed Hero: Teaching Love of Environmental Science in Grays Harbor

Submitted by Kathy Jacobson for Chehalis Basin Partnership and Chehalis Basin Lead Entity

As soon as you enter Simpson Elementary School, in a rise above Montesano, you’ll notice the theme of the Chehalis River is woven into the school’s identity. And you’ll notice the enthusiastic work of Tina Niels’s 4th grade students on the hall walls.

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Tina Niels is the 2019 Watershed hero. Photo courtesy: Tina Niels

For more than 15 years, Tina has involved her students with the Chehalis Basin Education Consortium, a program with the goal “to support stewardship of the Chehalis Watershed through environmental education by linking Washington State’s learning goals and standards to environmental issues part of the watershed.”

“It is so important to get my students outdoors, to build their knowledge of their local environment, and to learn ways to look out for the health of the river,” said Tina.

When asked why she wanted to be a teacher, Tina said, “I could see the growth that was happening with my nieces and nephews, — and said wow!”  Local girl Tina went to Grays Harbor College and Saint Martin’s College for her undergraduate and master’s degrees.  Tina has taught elementary school for 30 years and has lived in Elma her entire life – almost 60 years.

Each year, Tina involves her students in a two-week unit on salmon and was excited to talk about a fall trip with her students to Schafer State Park, with the chance to see salmon spawning.

Chehalis Basin Partnership Tina Niels pulling herb robert at Schafer State Park
Students helped pull the non-native, invasive plant, Herb Robert, at Schafer State Park. Photo courtesy: Tina Niels

“For some of my kids, they had never seen a river up close.  And for them, to also be able to see salmon spawn right in front of them, it was just unreal, completely phenomenal. We discussed, and discussed what was happening, and my students are really getting it, the whole connection. They have built their knowledge base, and their empathy for all living things.”

For the past decade, Tina has brought her students, to the Chehalis River Discovery Trail and alongside them have planted hundreds of trees.

“I love showing my current fourth graders the tall Douglas Fir, Black Cottonwood, and other trees that my former elementary school students planted. Our students and volunteers love to plant trees and learning the names of our native trees. They learned that planting trees is a great way to store carbon over the long term, that trees filter water, shade the river, prevent erosion — and improve moods.”

Tina and her class of fourth graders recently partnered with the Friends of Schafer and Lake Sylvia (FOSL).  FOSL’s goal is to work together, to keep all state parks open and operating for future generations.

“I was very fortunate to receive a $500 grant from Port Blakely to support this partnership. My students and I have gotten to learn from city of Montesano’s forester and helped remove invasive English ivy and Herb Robert from the parks.”

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Students testing water quality in local streams. Photo courtesy: Tina Niels

Another project was the creation of a native plant garden, located in the southeast corner of the school yard. Grants were written to purchase gloves, tools, and plant materials. Students love to work and study in the garden, and even write letters to incoming fourth graders about ways to maintain the garden.

A favorite story of Tina’s is, “seeing the pride my student felt after removing load after load of invasive Morning Glory from the garden.”

Tina also shared that, “Jeff Hogen from the non-organization Killer Whale Tales, has been coming to our school for years, to teach ways our actions can protect orcas. Through Jeff’s program, our students are introduced to orcas and orca research, and ways to make a difference through conservation projects (Killerwhales.org).”

Tina is a life-long learner, and every year likes to do something a bit different with her students.

Chehalis Basin Partnership Tina Niels snowberry
Aside from pulling invasive species, they also plant native ones, like snowberry. Photo courtesy: Tina Niels

I often drove by the large-scale fish barrier removal project in McCleary and intrigued to learn more. Our team of 4th grade teachers were invited to tour the project site. This led to having John Romero, Head Project Engineer with the Washington’s Department of Transportation, Fish Passage and Highway Construction come to our school.  John talked to our students about the replacement of the culverts and the building of bridges, to improve fish passage (salmon and steelhead) for the Middle and East Forks of Wildcat Creek. This was a great real-life learning opportunity and exposure to Natural Resource careers for my students.”

For past three years, Tina have involved her students in a regional NOAA grant (Action Projects for Community Resilience). As a climate fellow in this project, she has applied her increased knowledge base with her teaching.

Tina said, “Now, when I teach using science teaching kits, I can bring in more relevant environmental issues. This year, while my students and I were learning about and dissecting oysters, we also looked for the presence of plastics. This led to much discussion and participation in the 31 Day Challenge Project sponsored by Going Zero Waste. As a class, we took the challenge and participated in daily practices to protect the environment.”

Tina also involves her students in “River of Words, a nature, art and poetry contest”. Through their yearly involvement in this program, students have learned how science, the arts, and writing can be integrated.

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Tina’s students studying micro-invertebrates. Photo courtesy: Tina Niels

In her decades of teaching, Tina’s passion and interest in teaching young learners has not waned. Tina learned that there’s no substitute for direct experiences in the outdoors for her fourth graders. She has seen how nature is important for her student’s mental well-being and how they do better on standardized tests when they have access to green play areas.

In reflection on her role as a teacher, Tina mused, “The students that I teach are the future. Some parents don’t have the time or knowledge about some of the environmental impacts around us. I feel that it is my job to share knowledge that will not only help students learn more, but also to plant a seed that might grow. They might be the ones that change things. —If I had a theme song, it would be Matthew West’s, “Do Something.”

Article written by Kathy Jacobson, as part of the Chehalis Basin Partnerships’ Chehalis Watershed Hero series.

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