Within Western there are numerous ways in which students may pursue hands-on experiential learning. One popular class, modeled around volunteer projects on campus, is Topics in Ecological Restoration.

In 2007, Dr. Jim Helfield, an associate professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences at Huxley College, was teaching a class on ecological restoration. He remembers how in the first year of teaching the class there was less hands on experience.

 “The students gave a lot of presentations and wrote papers evaluating restoration projects,” he recalls.
At the same time, Dr. John Tuxill, an associate professor at Fairhaven College, was teaching a very similar class for Fairhaven students.

“Dr. Tuxill and I realized we were both teaching restoration courses at the same time and that we both wanted to accomplish similar things, so we decide to just join forces,” said Helfield.

In 2008 that is exactly what they did. Now, every fall term Helfield and Tuxill bring students from Fairhaven and Huxley together to undergo and learn from their own restoration projects.

The restoration projects are centered here on Western’s campus so that students may easily access the project sites. In past years students have removed invasive species such as English Ivy and Holly from the Sehome Hill Arboretum, replanted native species along Bootsucker Creek, and worked to restore wetlands throughout the AS Outback Farm.

“Primary objectives for the students are to understand the basic concepts of ecological restoration,” said Tuxill. “[Students] get experience in actually designing, carrying out and evaluating [their] own project. That’s hand-on learning.”

Another major part of the class is working with existing organizations to collectively understand project objectives and develop methods for success.

“The projects that students are doing, it’s of interest of somebody else on campus, whether it’s the Outback, whether it’s facilities, whether it’s the Arboretum. There are people involved in managing all those areas, and they are very interested in what the students are working on. That’s pretty unique,” Tuxill said.

When students are not working on their group projects they are evaluating other ecological restoration projects. Helfield has been able to share with the class his personal experience from a salmon habitat restoration project that he worked on for three years in Sweden. Additionally, the class will be taking two-field trips this fall. One will be to a salmon habitat restoration project on the South Fork of the Nooksack River and the other will be to Whatcom Creek.

 “When I was in college the focus was really more on limiting degradation, limiting the destruction,” Helfield remembers. “I think it’s only in recent times that we’ve seen more emphasis and more technological ability to actually fix the things that have been messed up.”

“If you’re a practitioner of ecological restoration, this is a pretty good place to be and a pretty good time to be here,” he said.
“There is all sorts of similar work going on throughout Whatcom County, throughout Washington State. So you are gaining skills that are directly applicable to work and a career that you can go into,” explained Tuxill.

Helfield has had numerous students go on to work for the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Agency. In-fact he recalls, “I’ve had at least two students tell me that they got their job directly because they were able to take this class.”

Topics in Ecological Restoration define hands-on learning. It is an opportunity for students with different interests and skills to put their talents together and improve the environment they inhabit.

In Tuxill’s words, “It’s a great experience. It’s a way to actually leave something very tangible behind once you graduate. It’s an accomplishment that you can come back to, check out and see how it’s doing two years, five years, ten years later.”