Education for All Ages Is the Approach at a Unique Environmental Learning Place in California

A small-scale wastewater treatment plant is part of an EcoCenter in San Francisco that teaches students and adults about the environment in a wetland setting.

Education for All Ages Is the Approach at a Unique Environmental Learning Place in California

Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative youth help clean up the outdoor classroom, called The Stomping Ground. 

The EcoCenter in San Francisco’s Heron’s Head Park holds classes and sponsors activities to teach students and adults about ecosystems and habitat restoration in a natural wetland environment.

This 2,292-square-foot, net-zero energy, LEED Platinum building was constructed in 2010 by the nonprofit organization Literacy for Environmental Justice to help educate an underserved community on sustainability and the environment.

The Literacy for Environmental Justice constructed the building to support its environmental education and public engagement programs and to inspire the community about green building technologies that can help counteract the adverse environmental impacts the area has experienced. The facility is located on a long peninsula that includes 14 acres of upland areas and 8 acres of tidal salt marsh. A one-third-mile walking trail extends the length of the peninsula.

Treatment demonstration

The building includes an operable wastewater treatment plant rated to treat 600 gpd. It includes a lift station, primary and secondary treatment tanks, a disinfection unit and an effluent tank. A man-made, pilot-scale wetland home to plants, fish, snails and other creatures supports educational demonstrations.

The plant serves as a learning tool for visitors to reflect on the water purification processes that happen naturally in the wetlands outside the center, according to Carol Bach, environmental affairs manager for the Port of San Francisco, which oversees the building and land.

“There is a certain poetry to being in the wastewater treatment room and understanding how the plants and bacteria that performed the water treatment inside the EcoCenter are mirrored outside the window in the natural environment in the salt marsh,” Bach says.

Field trips and internships

Although the Literacy for Environmental Justice is still an important partner to the site and center, it handed the keys for the EcoCenter to the Port of San Francisco. At that point, the nonprofit became a tenant to establish additional classes, tours and activities for the center and the park.   

For five years, along with San Francisco Recreation and Parks, worked with area schools to establish K-12 field trips that meet California’s Next Generation Science Standards. The recreation and parks organization is now the sole program provider.

“Students touring the EcoCenter learn about the living roof, solar panels and how energy is harvested to power the building,” says Brenda Cartagena, youth services manager for the parks group. “They also learn about the wastewater treatment plant and the importance and significance of filtering our water.”

Paid internships for high school students and young adults focus on issues around sustainability. The Youth Stewardship Program offers internships to young adults interested in careers in teaching and environmental or outdoor education. They learn key aspects of planning, programming and project management, and lead field trips to parks and open spaces. Many have gone on to roles in the environmental sciences.

A Greenagers internship program is for ninth and 10th graders. Students get a stipend to help with projects at the center and help with site cleanup and restoration. The program empowers them to become community and environmental leaders through civic engagement, park stewardship and outdoor recreation.

The building also serves as a community meeting center for youth and adult organizations related to sustainability. Visitors are intergenerational and cross all demographics. “One of our primary pushes is to bring in schools in the Bay Area neighborhood and for them to tour the buildings and grounds and take advantage of this unique experience,” Cartagena says. “There are not many facilities of this type where you can see the different earth systems happening in nature.”

Earth Day birthday

The EcoCenter opened its doors around Earth Day in 2010. On April 21, 2019, the center hosted a public celebration to commemorate its ninth birthday. People took part in a cleanup of the area, and tours of the facility were given.

The site also hosts a Healthy Parks Healthy People Trail Walk and a Science Saturdays program where visitors learn about the native plants growing at the site. Other recent public activities include a California Coastal Cleanup Day, a Martin Luther King Day of Service and the BaySplash festival. These attract hundreds of visitors and residents every year.


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