Spotlight on the Good Works of the RCM Community Trust: Urban Ecology Center’s Neighborhood Environmental Education Project

Each year for the last several years, the RCM Community Trust has underwritten participation in the Urban Ecology Center’s Neighborhood Environmental Education Project (NEEP) for students at our two partner schools, Brown Street Academy and Oliver Wendell Holmes.


Photo by Mandie LousierWith NEEP, schools partner with the Urban Ecology Center for an entire year. Rather than just another field trip, students have access to an outdoor classroom where science concepts taught in class are reinforced with hands-on outdoor activities during multiple visits. NEEP science-based programs range from basic wildlife and ecology studies, to the physics of sound and light, to simple machines, to energy, to recycling.  At a time when physical education programs are being cut, the Center also offers valuable kinesthetic learning opportunities, including rock climbing, canoeing, hiking, snow shoeing and ice skating.


The philosophy of NEEP is based on research which shows that constant contact with nature early in life, and exposure to adult mentors who demonstrates positive environmental behavior, leads to environmental awareness in children. In the city, people often live in apartment buildings and school grounds are often covered in cement. The Urban Ecology Center offers unique urban sanctuaries and “outdoor laboratories” for neighborhood school children. The Center’s staff and volunteers serve as adult mentors to guide students, year after year, as they progress through school.


And with the opening of the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum last September, the Center’s outdoor classroom space has increased 300%, offering new places for kids to study diverse landscapes. As of the beginning of May, children participated in just under 14,000 visits to the Arboretum through the NEEP program.


The Center’s environmental educators are thrilled with the increased educational and play opportunities that the Arboretum provides. Educator Chad Thomack identifies the top of “Coyote Hill” – the hill directly west of the Arch when you enter the Arboretum, as one of his new favorite teaching spots.


During a recent NEEP class, Chad and a group of first graders gathered on Coyote Hill at the rock circle to talk about the web of life. As they discussed interactions between rabbits and coyotes, Chad noticed some coyote scat near the circle, providing a serendipitous teaching moment. “Soon after one of the 1st grade students said he saw a coyote – really some black tarp rolled up in the grass,” says Chad, “And then all the students got excited to sneak up on the ‘coyote.’ We ended up spending 45 minutes playing and hanging out at the river flat playscape that is directly west of coyote hill. What an experience it was!”


With the support of the RCM Community Trust, the students at Brown Street Academy and Oliver Wendell Holmes have the opportunity to develop strong, lifelong connections to nature through NEEP – now enhanced by the diverse habitats of the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum.