PORTLAND - An inner city outreach program working with Portland Public Schools has been nationally recognized for its success in building bridges between natural resources issues, urban youth and the need to encourage more young scholars to pursue careers in the environmental sciences.

The program, organized by the College of Forestry at Oregon State University and supported by three other land management and research agencies, recently received the Annual Diversity Award for Partnership Achievement from Gale Norton, U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

"This is a chance to spark an interest in natural resource issues among young Portland-area students, and help steer them toward some subjects they might otherwise not have considered," said David Stemper, manager of pre-college programs for the OSU College of Forestry. "We also try to connect them to internships and job opportunities, even during high school, and ultimately take their interests to the next level at OSU or a community college."

Called the Inner City Youth Institute, the program since 1999 has been operating in northeast Portland, mostly at Grant High School and three area middle schools. The program director works with teachers and students, providing natural resource exploration opportunities, unique projects, mentors, and funding for field expeditions, equipment and substitute teachers.

Students have responded positively. At Portland's Jesuit High School, Danielle Jackson said that the program has piqued her interest in watersheds. "The McKenzie River is my favorite," Jackson said, noting that she is considering studying hydrology at OSU.

Oriented around field trips, the program is hands-on and offers contextual learning. Both high school and middle school students are working in the Columbia Slough on a salmon restoration project. In this instance, the city of Portland is planning next summer to do some dredging of silt in various areas to improve what was historically a site for salmon maturation and migration.

But management officials wanted some baseline data on what bird and mammal species are now using the area and might be affected by this project - and the students are providing that. In this context, the program is more than just a student exercise, it produces original research and data being used by land management agencies.

"The ICYI experience encourages high school teachers to incorporate natural resource management issues into their classroom curricula," Norton said in making the recent award. "Thank you and keep up the good work."

Collaboration and funding support for this project comes from OSU, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Topics of study for the students include such things as exploration of salmon habitat and stream ecology, forestry and terrestrial ecology, and wildlife survey and management issues. All of the issues are explored at least in part with a forestry context, and the students often get a chance to work with natural resource professionals and sophisticated equipment. Recently, Portland students were doing studies in the Bull Run watershed with a $700 turbidimeter, conducting water quality assessments. Further expansion of the program is being considered, Stemper said, and one immediate goal is to further develop the program's non-profit branch in order to facilitate funding by private foundations.

About two years ago one participant who was then in the eighth grade, Laura Harris, said she "just liked trees and exploring in the woods, and these trips give me a chance to do that."

"I either want to be a rock star or do something in science," Harris said at the time. "Maybe forest biology or marine biology."

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David Stemper, 503-725-5752