An innovative educational program based on teamwork and problem-solving inspired by attempts to break out of an Escape Room will be expanded with the $25,000 grant recently awarded to Harbor WildWatch from the Windows of Hope Foundation through the Gary E. Milgard Foundation.
The creative approach to learning was developed first as a test for the imaginative methods utilized by the outreach division of the nonprofit environmental education organization based in Gig Harbor.
“We needed to know if our workshops were accomplishing our educational goals,” explained Rachel Easton, the education director at Harbor WildWatch. “It has become much, much more.”
With a laugh, she admitted the staff at Harbor WildWatch are biologists, not educators. The Escape Room was developed on a whim to help evaluate their methods without subjecting the students to formal testing. The program eventually evolved into an ideal strategy to match the foundation’s goal of an educational program designed to impact Pierce County in ways the foundation had hoped.
The first Lock Box session covered geology. In trying to unlock the clues to help them get out, Eason said, students gained a hands-on knowledge of rocks, minerals, erosion, volcanoes and how the world works.
Easton said the progress was slow at first as students needed to first learn the difference between a code that needed to be solved and a clue that was required to open the Lock Box.
“We loved the idea of an Escape Room and the tools students in grades three through five needed to utilize to ‘unlock the keys’ to earn their freedom,” Easton told Living Local. “We have had kids who would never raise their hand in our classroom become engaged to the point they assumed leadership roles to coordinate the escape.”
Harbor WildWatch provides educational programs for students from pre-K through college. Easton said elementary-aged students were selected for the initial program because of their natural sense of curiosity and the lack of distractions that often limits the time and commitment middle and high school students can make to an after-school program.
The $25,000 grant award will directly support classroom workshops and after-school programs that focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in the 2018-2019 school year. The Harbor Outreach Program (HOP) consists of 20 classroom lessons that inspire a love for STEM learning in elementary and middle school students. Similarly, the After-School STEM Club offers six weeks of workshops that are both unique and fun, as well as build curiosity around STEM careers.
The Rock Lock Box is designed to test the students’ retention of workshop content in a group setting. It is comprised of a series of interactive clues and codes that quiz students on what they learned during previous lessons. Students are challenged to use their critical thinking skills to unlock a total of eight boxes by decoding clues through a variety of experiments and deciphering messages written in invisible ink.
“What I really love about the Lock Box is the enthusiasm of the kids who participate. They don’t realize they are taking a test,” Easton said.
Tyler Zemanek, the program officer with the Windows of Hope Foundation, had a chance to test her own knowledge with this creative tool designed by her colleagues during a recent visit to the Harbor WildWatch office.
“After experiencing the Rock Lock Box firsthand, I was excited about the potential for it to be an engaging and effective model to evaluate students,” said Zemanek. “Without a doubt, it’s the most fun I’ve had testing my knowledge of geology.”
Future programs that will use the Escape Room approach to learning will be focused on the health of the water in and around Gig Harbor, salmon, energy and tides. Easton acknowledged she is looking forward to the unit on the creatures that populate the Puget Sound where she can utilize her background in biology.
The wildlife center is currently seeking grants to fund the additional programs.
Easton has lived in Gig Harbor since 1989 (“almost my entire life”) and has been with Harbor WildWatch for almost 12 years.
Gary and Carol Milgard, and their children, created the Gary E. Milgard Foundation in 2000. The Milgard family shares a deep interest and commitment to philanthropy. The original foundation was reorganized in 2016 when it began to distribute funds to local causes that closely matched the environmental mission the foundation was designed to encourage. The distribution of funds will be made through to four separate agencies, including Windows of Hope.
Harbor WildWatch was founded in 2004 by Gig Harbor citizen DeeDee Holser, who wanted to introduce the public to the wonders of the Puget Sound. Beginning with a few “touch-tank” events at the city pier, visitors were given the chance to see moon snails, sea cucumbers and nudibranchs up close and personal, while knowledgeable volunteers answered their questions and provided tips for improved stewardship practices.
By 2009, additional programs were developed to focus on educating local youth to include a series of classroom science workshops and a junior naturalist training program.
Harbor WildWatch celebrated 10 years of delivering environmental education at the Skansie Visitor and Interpretive Center in Downtown Gig Harbor. Today the organization employs four full-time staff members who deliver over 600 environmental education programs to 30,000 residents and visitors each year.