Environment Archives - Eva Varga

April 17, 2015

The Arbor Day Foundation was founded in 1972, the centennial of the first Arbor Day observance in the 19th century. I was born just a month later in Oregon – where a full week is set aside to celebrate trees.

The Arbor Day Foundation inspires people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees.

We can do better than a single day or even a full week to honor earth. Join us in celebrating trees all year long with these 12 activities.

Celebrate Arbor Day with These 12 Activities @EvaVarga.net1. Learn about the history of Arbor Day

2. Plant a fruit tree in your yard or enjoy field trip to an apple farm

3. Correlate the history of the United States to one tree’s growth rings

4. Create art or poetry inspired by trees

forest ecology5. Get Involved with the US Forestry Department or other resource agency

6. Learn how to measure a tree’s height, crown spread and diameter

7. Study the ecosystem of one particular tree


Life Logic: Botany – Plenty O’Plants  is a hands-on life science curriculum that provides ample opportunity for kids to explore plant science in-depth.  This 10-week unit is full of inquiry-based activities and lesson plans fully outlined for you.

8. Learn to identify trees in your community using a dichotomous key or create your own

9.  Study the structure of a tree, how it functions, and what benefits a tree provides

10. Take a nature walk and practice your new skill

Arbor Day @EvaVarga.net11. Organize a Nature Explore Families’ Club

The Arbor Day Foundation has put together a research-based, field-tested collection of resources designed to help you organize a Nature Explore Families’ Club at your school, organization, or in your neighborhood. The Families’ Club Kit has everything you need to start a club and help you connect families with the outdoors and each other.

It also includes general information and customizable forms to get your club started, a facilitator’s guide with helpful hints on organization, and 15 visual, child-friendly activity sheets with facilitator notes specific to each one. For families interested in getting started with nature study and outdoor learning in a co-op environment, this is a wonderful resource!

Read my post, How to Start a Homeschool Coop, to learn more about how to get started with collaborative learning experiences.

12. Show us your favorite tree

Post your photo in the comments, on my Facebook, or send me an email (eva underscore varga at me dot com). I’ll compile them in a special post and we can celebrate Arbor Day together!



May 15, 20144

As a homeschool family, we have read about the first European colonists in the Americas and constructed paper models of Jamestown.  We have explored the ecosystems of North America and created posters to illustrate food webs.  We have created travel brochures to teach others about Alaska. We have even created multimedia news reports to share our experiences at Chinese New Year.  And the lapbooks.  When we first started homeschooling, we created many, many lapbooks. Sound familiar?

These are common examples of the kind of assignments that teachers and homeschool parents bill as projects. A classroom filled with student work may suggest that students have engaged in meaningful learning. However, it is the process of students’ learning and the depth of their cognitive engagement— rather than the resulting product—that distinguishes projects from busywork.

A project is meaningful if it fulfills two criteria. First, students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well. Second, a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose. Well-designed and well-implemented project-based learning is meaningful in both ways.

Many students find schoolwork meaningless because they don’t perceive a need to know what they’re being taught. They are unmotivated by a teacher’s suggestion that they should learn something because they’ll need it later in life, for the next course, or simply because “it’s going to be on the test.”

With a compelling student project, the reason for learning relevant material becomes clear: I need to know this to meet the challenge I’ve accepted. Teachers can powerfully activate students’ need to know content by launching a unit in a way that engages interest and initiates questioning.  This can take the form of a video, a lively discussion, a guest speaker, or a field trip.

Come along with me as I share an example of one particular project we have recently undertaken utilizing the Project Based Learning Cycle. You’ll discover that the cycle isn’t a concrete, step-by-step approach, but a fluid, natural progression of learning and growth.

PBL Cycle6 Steps to Project Based Learning

1. Identify the Problem

A good driving question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. The question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn. It could be abstract (When is war justified?); concrete (Is our water safe to drink?); or focused on solving a problem.

On a Roots & Shoots nature walk a few months ago, we observed that the population of native pond turtles had significantly declined.  In the past, we had observed many pond turtles basking in the sun but this time, we saw only two native turtles and a large number of non-native Red-eared slider turtles. 

This led us to question, “Why the change in population size? What was happening to the native pond turtles and what could we do to combat the decline?”

2. Analyze the Problem

In terms of making a project feel meaningful to students, the more voice and choice, the better. However, teachers should design projects that fit their own style and students.

You may choose to limit the choices, allowing learners to select what topic to study within a general driving question or choose how to design, create, and present the final product. You might provide a limited menu of options for creative projects to prevent students from becoming overwhelmed by choices. On the other end of the scale, students may decide what products they will create, what resources they will use, and how they will structure their time.

A few days after our outing, the coordinator emailed the kids suggesting they take action to increase public awareness and ultimately, prohibit the sale of red-eared sliders in pet stores.  My daughter was quick to pick up the challenge. She was eager to make a difference. 

3. Field Studies & Investigation

Students find project work more meaningful if they conduct real inquiry, which does not mean finding information in books or websites and pasting it onto a poster. In real inquiry, students follow a trail that begins with their own questions, leads to a search for resources and the discovery of answers, and often ultimately leads to generating new questions, testing ideas, and drawing their own conclusions. With real inquiry comes innovation—a new answer to a driving question, a new product, or an individually generated solution to a problem. The teacher does not ask students to simply reproduce teacher  or textbook provided information in a pretty format.

On a family walk a few weeks later, we observed numerous Red-eared sliders once again (a different location than the first).  My kids both lamented pet owners releasing these turtles into the wild without considering the consequences. My daughter began to further her questioning, “Where is the population of Western Pond Turtles the largest? Where is the population of Red-eared sliders the largest? Is the population of Western Pond Turtles changing at the same rate at Mary Lake as it is at Turtle Pond?” 

As she posed these questions to me on our walk, we discussed strategies for answering the questions.  She expressed an interest in collecting real data – capturing and tagging the turtles.  “I can bring my fishing net and I can paint a number on the back of their shell so I don’t count the same turtle over again.”

I suggested she reach out to local agencies (Fish & Wildlife, Parks & Recreation, Forest Service, etc.) to see what efforts the resource specialists had made (if any) in this regard.  Would they allow her to pursue this is more depth?

4. Identify Resources & Research

A project should give students opportunities to build such 21st century skills as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and the use of technology, which will serve them well in the workplace and life. This exposure to authentic skills provides the project with an educational purpose. A teacher in a project-based learning environment explicitly teaches and assesses these skills and provides frequent opportunities for students to assess themselves.

One step in the research process is to understand the natural history of both the Western Pond Turtle and the invasive, Red-eared sliders. My children have kept nature journals for years and so it was a natural decision to illustrate the turtles in their journals as a way to record their knowledge and research.  See my earlier post, Saving the Native Turtles: Part One – Naturalist’s Notes.

5. Test Solutions and Revision

Formalizing a process for feedback and revision during a project makes learning meaningful because it emphasizes that creating high-quality products and performances is an important purpose of the endeavor. Students need to learn that most people’s first attempts don’t result in high quality and that revision is a frequent feature of real-world work.

In addition to providing direct feedback, the teacher should coach students in using rubrics or other sets of criteria to critique one another’s work. Teachers can arrange for experts or adult mentors to provide feedback, which is especially meaningful to students because of the source.

At every step in the learning cycle, the kids have been making changes and revisions. As my daughter brainstormed ideas to investigate the population size, she modified her action plan with suggestions I made.  When she meets with the resources specialist, she will undoubtedly make additional changes to her approach.  As the kids work on their posters and letters (see step 6 below), they will create a rough draft and seek feedback from one another as well as from their parents.  

6. Present Solutions & Engage the Public

Schoolwork is more meaningful when it’s not done only for the teacher or the test. When students present their work to a real audience, they care more about its quality. Once again, it’s “the more, the better” when it comes to authenticity. Students might replicate the kinds of tasks done by professionals—but even better, they might create real products that people outside school use.

One of the projects the kids have planned is to create posters to educate the public about the dangers of releasing exotic pets into the wild. They have invited their friends to join them in this service learning activity and they intend to hang the posters at local pet stores and the science center. They have also begun to write letters to their state congressmen to encourage them to take legislative action.

September 19, 2013

Dear Bill Marriott,

My name is Eva Varga and together with my husband and two young children, we recently enjoyed staying at three of your hotels during our family holiday in China (Marriott Hotel City Wall in Beijing, Courtyard Xujiahui in Shanghai, and the Renaissance Harbour View in Hong Kong).  We love the Marriott brand and as reward members, we have enjoyed our stay at many other locations around the world.

Our thoughts on the environment & sustainability

While staying in Beijing, we enjoyed watching a short documentary on Marriott’s efforts to contribute to the local economy and sustainable agriculture.  The focus of the piece was on apiculture in China and it was of particular interest to us as we hope to someday have hives of our own.  While I was personally interested in the story, I was most delighted to hear of Marriott’s interest in sustainability and the local communities in which it serves.

marriott and nestleAs many travelers are aware, it is unsafe to drink tap water in China and it is advised to purchase bottled water.  While I appreciated that Marriott provided bottled water to its guests, I was saddened when I thought about the quantity of plastic that is consumed as a result.  The impact of our consumption of plastic alone is concerning enough, but what really struck me was that the water provided was bottled by Nestlé.

It struck me as odd that Marriott – a company that markets itself as one dedicated to the environment – would choose to partner with a company like Nestlé, whose CEO has stated that drinking water is not a human right, but a privilege.  The atrocities committed by Nestlé are not limited to drinking water, however. Large multinational beverage companies are often given water-well privileges (and even tax breaks) over citizens because they create jobs, which is apparently more important to the local governments than water rights to other taxpaying citizens. It is bad enough that they are depleting our natural resources of water, but they also promote GM/GMO foods, investing money to thwart labeling of such products.

In the 1970s, Nestlé was accused of getting third world mothers hooked on formula, which is less healthy and more expensive than breast milk.  To save money, mothers diluted the formula with water, often with contaminated water, thus preventing their child from absorbing the necessary nutrients. As a result, millions of babies died from malnutrition.  Poor labeling, mostly due to poor literacy rates, was also a contributing factor.  The allegations led to hearings in the Senate and the World Health Organization, resulting in a new set of marketing rules.

Considering the negative press and global reputation of Nestlé, I strongly urge Marriott to reconsider using Nestlé products.  While the need to provide safe drinking water is important, I hope Marriott will seek out alternatives.  Perhaps installing purifiers in each room or providing a reusable (aluminum) water bottle filling station on each floor.


Eva Varga

Nestlé Products to Boycott

September 18, 20131

In my daughter’s letter to Santa this past Christmas, she asked for a better environment.  A sustainable lifestyle has been a topic of discussion often in our family with reducing our carbon footprint as our goal.  We like to travel so we make concerned efforts to reduce our consumption in other areas. While we still have a long way to go, we are making progress and I share with you a few of our steps to a more sustainable lifestyle.

carbon footprint10. Reusable Canvas Bags

We have stopped using plastic and even paper bags upon making purchases long ago. It was the easiest change to make. When we sometimes forget to bring in our canvas bags, we simply carry them in our arms or put the items back into the cart, keeping the receipt handy if questioned.

9. Stainless Steel Bottles

We each have our own water bottle that we keep with us or easily accessible in the car. Rather than purchase bottled water, we refill when we can. Restaurants are always willing to allow us to fill our bottles. While we were at the Grand Canyon recently, we were impressed to discover that the park system has now eliminated the sale of bottled water.  Instead, refilling stations can be found throughout the park ~ even the elk have figured out how to operate the dispensers.

While I am not opposed to the occasional soft drink, we also limit our consumption by not purchasing them for the home. Instead, we treat ourselves to the occasional soda only when we dine out.  Relatedly, while we do not often eat at fast food restaurants, when we do, we abstain from using plastic lids or straws.

8. Buy Fresh & Seasonally

The kids and I have been reading labels since they could read. We avoid things with high fructose corn syrup, palm oil, and artificial additives. We try to buy only fresh foods – particularly organic.  We buy our milk from a local farmer and regularly visit the farmer’s markets.

Relatedly, we do much of our shopping at Costco buying our staples in bulk. This not only saves money but also generally reduces the amount of trash we generate as there is less packaging.  We consciously purchase products with less packaging. For example, we buy loose leaf tea rather than using factory made tea bags that are often wrapped in plastic.

7. Reuse / Shop 2nd Hand

I am not a big shopper. This makes it easy to not consume products and materials that I really don’t need. So many clothes are now made outside the U.S. – the amount of energy required (fossil fuels) to bring these products to us is astounding. We thereby try to purchase only what we need, even then first trying to find them second hand.

One of my favorite resources is FreeCycle.com We have been able to find many goods that others have wanted to pass on. Similarly, we rely on word of mouth (and today, Facebook plays a major role). My daughter recently received a Singer sewing machine from our landlord when his wife wanted to pass it on. I’m a little surprised his daughter didn’t want it, but we are very pleased to be the recipient of such a wonderful gift.

6. Unplugging & Energy Efficient Appliances

We have over time upgraded to energy efficient appliances and lightbulbs whenever possible. When not in use, we unplug our electronics: toaster, coffee pot, mobile phone chargers, etc.  Even if nothing’s attached, many chargers still use energy (if it feels warm, it’s using electricty).  The natural lighting in the house is great so we use electric lights only rarely and then only for a short time.

5. Plan Errands

I plan out our errands around town to avoid unnecessary trips. I plan ahead to squeeze in as many tasks as I can in the time we have available and cluster them to make a circuitous route back home. I love it when I can spend two-three days entirely at home.  Similarly, we coordinate our milk pickup with another family to avoid both of us driving out to the farm every week.  When the kids get a little older, we will bicycle more often but presently we live across town from most of our lessons – swim team is 8 miles from the house.

4. Line Trash w/ Newspaper

This is the most recent change we have begun to undertake. Though it is a little more time consuming (and occasionally messy), it again saves money and has a significantly smaller impact on the environment.

3. Cloth Diapers & Napkins

When my kiddos were in diapers, we used cloth diapers and laundered them in home.  I am surprised I hadn’t realized it then, but thanks to a close friend (Thank you, Jennifer!!)  I have recently also begun to use cloth feminine napkins myself.  By simply switching to cloth we not only reduce our carbon footprint, we also save money.

2. Mindful Eating

Vegetarians save at least 3,000 pounds of CO2 per year compared to meat eaters. We’ve thereby increased the number of vegetarian meals we eat each week.  We are also mindful of waste.  I have read that about one-quarter of all the food prepared annually in the U.S., for example, gets tossed, producing methane in landfills as well as carbon emissions from transporting wasted food.  I thereby make a concerned effort to prepare just enough for our meal.  When dining out, we frequently share meals.  This not only saves in energy but also assures we don’t over eat.

1. Drive a Hybrid

We haven’t yet converted to a hybrid. Our cars are paid for and run well. We just aren’t excited to make car payments again. We know, however, our next automobile will be a hybrid. We drive so much, it is the logical choice. However, we follow a strict maintenance plan – air, oil and fuel filters are changed according to schedule and the tires are properly inflated and rotated.

@      @      @

While these changes are not necessarily achievable overnight, the gradual lifestyle changes will have a big impact on the environment.  I know we have a long way yet to go; there are more changes we can make for more sustainable living.  We continue to seek out actions and lifestyle changes ourselves.

What choices have you made as an individual or as a family for sustainable living?

May 14, 2012

I wanted to be certain that I posted pictures of the wonderful boxes we received in the Environmental Exchange Box project that I coordinated in the spring.  To assure everyone who signed up had a partner in a region different than the one in which they resided, my kiddos and I ended up exchanging with three different families.  There was really no extra effort on our part … we just collected duplicates of everything we wanted to send. 

“Our “Maryland” box from 

Each box we received was very different in regards to what the families chose to send.  Some chose to include seed packets of wildflowers.  Others chose to include local food products.  Everyone included some travel brochures and information about their local region.

Our “Illinois” box from 

We enjoyed opening each box and take out each item one by one.  The contents of the boxes opened up a discussion about the similarities and differences between our environments.  We discovered, for example, that Lodgepole pine is found across the continent.

Our “Colorado” box from 
We were very pleased with the results of this project.  We hope that everyone who took part had a great time and learned a little more about the ecology of our country.  I encourage you to think of coordinating a similar project of your own.  We learned so much.  🙂

February 10, 20124

Have you ever marveled at the differences between the natural environments of your home region and those of areas through which you travel?  I know I do.  I grew up on the southern Oregon coast, lived in the Willamette Valley through college, and we started our family while living in central Oregon.  Even within this one small state, the ecosystems are varied and thereby the plants and animals that reside there are diverse.   I now live in Northern California and I am amazed at how distinctly different the ecology is here.

To celebrate the diversity of the regions in which we live, I am organizing an exchange activity.  However, I will need your help.  I don’t have many followers so you’ll need to help spread the word.  I’ve also shared the project with my local homeschool community.   The activity is based upon Project Learning Tree‘s activity #20, Environmental Exchange Box (click upon the link for the PDF of the lesson plan).   Follow this link for visual ideas, PLTs Forest Exchange Boxes.

Essentially, each family puts together a box of things found in your local natural environment … a selection of pressed leaves and flowers, seashells, seeds and cones, a vial of sand, feathers, a few stones, a sound recording of local birds, stories the kids have written about their favorite things to do in their area, photographs, samples of non-perishable regional foods (maple syrup, walnuts, etc.), and/or  copies of newspaper clippings relating local environmental issues.

We can also use a webcam and/or YouTube to facilitate the exchange – allowing the students an opportunity to interact with their exchange partners to explain the contents of the box they prepared.    What you select and how you organize your box is up to you.  Be creative!

Everyone wishing to participate would be given the address of another family to whom to send their box. You mail a box just once.

Those interested in taking part should submit the information below via email.  I will thereafter assign each participating family a partner family with whom to exchange boxes.

  • Name
  • School Name (if you have one)
  • Address
  • Telephone Number (include area code)
  • Age of Students
  • Email Address
  • Preferred state or region with which you would like to exchange (not guaranteed)

This exchange project has concluded.