Environmental center brings educational opportunities

The first annual Verbrugge Environmental Center Symposium was held at the Scotia House, right next to the Verbrugge Environmental Center, on Saturday, Sept. 29. The VEC is 605 acres of mixed coniferous forest situated approximately 35 miles northeast of Spokane. It is located near the headwaters of the Little Spokane River.

Whitworth is merely the beneficiary of the property, not the owner.

Gary Verbrugge, owner of the property, donated use of the property to Whitworth University.

“So much development and subdividing is going on in Scotia Valley. I wanted to avoid having our property subdivided and developed. I wanted to provide a home for the wildlife and encourage conservation,” Verbrugge said.

He began to connect with faculty at Whitworth and found that they had mutual goals of preserving  wildlife, nature and education.

“It is a big piece of property, one of the few remaining in this area,” Verbrugge said.

He said he likes the fact that someone will be using the property and hopes that it will encourage future generations to value conservation and learn from nature.

The vision for the VEC consists of building a facility that will provide opportunities for research, education and conservation.

The purpose of the meeting was to share with stakeholders and potential collaborators the vision for the property, the progress toward that vision to date and the kinds of partnerships that could potentially be facilitated with the development of the VEC.

Many Whitworth professors, as well as representatives from various schools and organizations, attended the meeting.

Among those representatives was Sarah Pooler, former professor of education at Whitworth, who now teaches at Riverpoint Academy in Spokane.

Pooler said she hopes the center will provide new experiences for her students.

“I want students to connect with nature in an experiential hands-on way, to get unplugged, to appreciate beauty and understand the importance of our role in caring for the environment,” Pooler said.

Another attendee of the symposium was Patrick Sawyer, outdoor educator at Chewelah Peak Learning Center.

Sawyer came to the meeting to learn about how Chewelah Peak may potentially connect with Whitworth in bringing students to the VEC for learning experiences.

Discussions were held at the meeting about research activities and collaborations that may take place at the VEC. These include everything from hard sciences to social sciences and cultural anthropology.

Whitworth assistant professor of biology Grant Casady is one of the leaders responsible for the research and conservation programs at the VEC.

Casady has led groups of students in conducting research and collecting baseline data, such as measuring the forest canopy, measuring tree diameters and identifying various vegetation species, all of which will benefit future research.

“All the research we do involves students and conservation projects,” Casady said.

Conservation projects by Whitworth students include prescribed burns and planting new trees.

“I’ve been very impressed with the college students,” Verbrugge said.

The site is also used by Whitworth for educational ventures. Casady takes some of his biology classes out to the center for field trips and other professors take their classes to the property for lectures. Assistant professor of chemistry Drew Budner takes a chemistry class, professor of biology Frank Caccavo takes a microbiology class and associate professor of biology Mike Sardinia takes a class to the field for parasitology.

Dennis Sterner, dean of the Whitworth school of education, is in charge of the educational portion of the VEC.

“The center will provide lots of different opportunities for candidates in teacher preparation at the undergraduate and graduate levels,” Sterner said.

For example, it will help prepare elementary school teachers by providing them with opportunities to connect with children at the center and conduct lessons with an environmental focus. An outdoor laboratory will be available for graduate students to do research in environmental education.

The VEC is a place that can provide educational opportunities to people outside the Whitworth community as well.

“There are opportunities to bring families to experience and talk about creation, but more importantly to learn about their creator,” said Dave LejaMeyer, the director of development for major gifts at Whitworth and part of the project management team for the VEC.

Masters in teaching students brought a group of sixth graders up to the center last summer.

Through collaborations with other organizations, the VEC will be used diversely in education, research and conservation.

Results of the discussions at the symposium will be used to inform a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a planning grant to establish the VEC as a research station.

“We are working on a proposal to the NSF; if funded it would provide for the planning of the overall use of the property,” Casady said.

As of now, the facility does not have a revenue stream, meaning construction of the facility will begin after a business model is formulated and a master plan completed.

Small projects such as providing restrooms or a rain shelter may be the first steps taken. From there the plan is to progressively add more buildings. The ultimate vision is to have a 16-person educational facility.

“The idea is to eventually have a place for housing so students may stay for a period of time, such as for Jan-term,” Casady said.

These developments are intended to increase Whitworth involvement with VEC and connect students with other collaborations.

The VEC is intended to serve as a learning experience for Whitworth students that goes beyond the classroom.

“The center will provide people with a different perspective in a different place,” LejaMeyer said.

Rebekah Bresee Staff Writer

Contact Rebekah Bresee at rbresee16@my.whitworth.edu.