Viana do Castelo is a municipality situated in the North of Portugal, hosting three major Natura 2000 sites. The sites extend across a range of habitats from dune systems and coastal cliffs, to extensive area of estuaries and freshwater habitats culminating in the mountainous peaks of the Serra de Arga.
In order to encourage and engage people’s interest in the knowledge, respect and appreciation of these valuable ecosystems, the Centre of Environmental Monitoring and Interpretation of Viana do Castelo Town Hall developed an educational project called School of Nature. It aims to bring school communities and, thus indirectly, the local community, closer to their unique natural heritage.
Through the project, sixty field activities were carried out with pupils, allowing them to observe and interpret the changes and dynamics of the natural ecosystems. In addition, five training courses were held for teachers on sustainability and nature conservation.
Educational tools directly linked to the Natura 2000 sites were developed based on the Portuguese Natura 2000 Sectoral Plan and adapted to the school curriculum content for different age levels. These include downloadable species identification sheets and observation cards from an online platform, where observation records can then be uploaded. After scientific validation, the information becomes available to all and can be shared with school communities from other municipalities. An exhibition on the Natura 2000 Network and the natural ecosystems was also produced along with an educational catalogue and activity books related to each Natura 2000 sites.
A total of 20,000 people were reached by the communication programme. Evaluation questionnaires were given to students before and after the programme and evaluation seminars were held to assess the effectiveness of the activities implemented. There were significant differences in the percentage of correct answers given by the students, concerning all the Natura 2000 habitats covered, before and after the activities. During the seminars, teachers highlighted other positive impacts amongst the students such as increased motivation and a greater capacity to observe and analyse.
The School of Nature programme continues to be run in the municipality’s schools, and is currently part of a plan for fighting school failure, with guaranteed funding for the next three academic years (i.e., until 2019/2020).