The goal

At a time when today’s kids spend less and less time outdoors (becoming known as “Nature Deficit Disorder”) and more and more research continues to confirm the serious consequences this lack of exposure has, Riveredge envisions:

  • A school system where the outdoors is integrated into everyday activities just as technology is interwoven through all subject areas.
  • Schools that do not have to make the choice between less recess time and more reading time because teachers have learned ways of transforming their local outdoor spaces into classrooms.
  • Students healthier, happier, more creative, and inspired by the world around them.

This isn’t just a vision. This is the goal of the Scientist in Residence program, a cutting-edge new project Riveredge is piloting in partnership with the West Bend School District. By placing a fully-funded environmental educator directly into schools for five years, the Scientist in Residence will be able to work directly with school staff to inspire, inform, and reduce barriers to their use of the outdoors as a teaching tool. The program amounts to a true partnership with local school districts to transform the culture of our formal education system through the integration of outdoor learning experiences, environmental science learning, and the implementation of sustainability projects and initiatives.

Want to know more about what a day in the life of a Scientist in Residence looks like? We’ve got you covered!

The outcome

Making the program responsive to the needs of the schools we partner with is a key component of the project. In that regard, Megan Johnson has been a perfect fit for the West Bend School District’s Scientist in Residence pilot program, focusing her attention on expanding science learning through outdoor learning and classroom space. In her first year, Megan has seen great results.

“The reaction from students and teachers has been amazing. There are many teachers who are enthusiastic to get their kids outside and out of the classroom. The kids are engaged and excited to do something out of the norm. For some of them having the chance to explore freely outside is not regular and it offers a unique experience.”

Megan has taught over 500 sixth graders a lesson on prairies, held a special insect field day for second graders, and had all K-6 teachers in the District on a hike in their district’s outdoor classroom to generate and brainstorm ideas for the teachers’ utilization of the space.

“This position is so beneficial for the school district because it allows the teachers to expand their knowledge and comfort without having to commit to large amounts of extra work. It also increases the learning atmosphere and community in the students classroom when they are able to participate in new activities together. With the push for increased STEM education this position is equally important for the district to lead the way in educational opportunities.”
The response from the community has been great, as well. In the 2016-2017 school year, not only will Megan be working with the West Bend School District for a second year, but we’ll also be expanding the program and bringing a new Scientist in Residence position to the Cedarburg School District. We’re excited to work with Cedarburg’s staff and students to make the outdoors an integral part of their school day as well!

Riveredge is committed to making its programs as effective as possible, both to do maximum good in our own communities, but also to serve as models for other organizations looking to make change in their own communities. That’s why we partnered with the UW-Milwaukee School of Urban Initiatives and Research to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the WBSD Scientist in Residence pilot year. Their findings are extremely promising- you can check out some of these results in the quick video above!

In the news

The excitement behind this unique project is catching on! We’ve had some great coverage about the program and its impacts. Check it out!


“A second-grader picking up a rock outside during school hours could be a cause for panic, but at Fair Park Elementary School here, Megan Johnson calmly watches as her lesson plan plays out just as she had hoped.”

Partnership brings nature alive for West Bend studentsMilwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Our vision is to create a culture in the school district where students are learning outside on a regular basis. Really the main goal is just to get kids outside and learning.”

Naturalist In Residence Brings The Outdoors Into ClassroomsWisconsin Public Radio

Getting students outdoors improves their


The list of positive health benefits linked to time spent outdoors is vast but includes increased physical activity (viewed as one of the most important factors for good health by doctors), more Vitamin D (tied to disease fighting and strong bones) and reduced risk of vision loss (natural light can improve children’s chances of not needing eyeglasses).


Time spent outdoors has been linked to a significant decrease in ADHD symptoms in kids and is now being touted as a supplement, and even replacement, to medication. Studies show the benefits on attention for all- one study’s participants’ performance and attention spans increased by 20% after just an hour interacting with nature.

Stress levels

In a time when some teens are more stressed out than adults, being surrounded by green space has been linked to reduced stress  and lower likelihood of depressive symptoms. 

Academic Performance

Environmental education is good for the brain! Schools that include environmental education programs score higher on tests in math, reading, writing and listening and another study showed an increase in critical-thinking skills in students exposed to environmental education programs.

And So Much More

The benefits of nature are endless! People who spend time playing and learning outdoors have increased negotiating skills, more caring attitudes, and better creativity.

Generous support for the pilot year of the West Bend and Cedarburg Scientist in Residence programs comes from:


West Bend
Mutual Insurance
Company Charitable

West Bend
Johnson Family


Oscar & Augusta
Schlegel Foundation

Interested in supporting this unique project?

We’re committed to expanding this program throughout our community and ensuring all kids have access to outdoor learning in their school day. Want to help us? Natalie Dorrler, our Associate Director of Development, would love to talk about ways you can help contribute. She can be reached at or 262-375-2715.

Want to learn more?

There’s so many awesome features of this project, we couldn’t possibly share it all here. If you’re interested in learning more of the details or opportunities for a Naturalist in Residence, please take a look at this Riveredge Naturalist in Residence Summary and let us know if you have any questions!

Our pilot year evaluation is completed!  Check out our one page cheat sheet to learn about the outcomes of year one with the West Bend School District.