To Netherwood Knoll Elementary third grade teacher Emily Anderson, her students are “her gift to the future.”

It turns out, they’re also good at giving back in the present.

What started during a few recess periods last February as an “impromptu, short-term and student-led group” of fourth-graders known as “Water Protectors” turned into a Save Our Species Conservation Award for Anderson. The teacher was honored Feb. 12 at the second annual Henry Vilas Zoological Society Save Our Species Luncheon, where the organization presented her with its conservation award.

“I am beyond honored,” Anderson told the Observer.

The event features guest speakers Chris Dold, chief veterinary officer of SeaWorld, and John Calvelli, executive vice president of public affairs of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who both appeared in Anderson’s class the day before to speak with her students.

“Each guest speaker shared their background… the pivotal moments when they realized their love for animals involved needing a job to protect them,” she said.

Last year, Anderson’s “Water Protectors” changed the outcome of a bridge construction project on a Wisconsin river after she told them she was heading several hours’ north to Manitowish Waters to speak at a public hearing about a proposed bridge over some rapids.

“This particular group of learners was especially enamored with turtles, and understood the devastating impact the installation of a bridge could have on the aquatic habitat,” Anderson said. The students used their free time to read, talk and learn about the bridge’s impact on a river’s ecosystem. Several submitted letters to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources during the public comment period on the bridge. Anderson said soon after, they received notice that the bridge would be moved to a different location.

“It brings me even more pleasure knowing that the nomination arose through the letters submitted by my students,” she said.