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Feature Article - April 2017

Pass It On

Cultivating New Nature-Lovers With Environmental Education Programs

By Dave Ramont


Pam Johnson teaches second grade at Anderson School in St. Charles, and she explained how teachers can do classroom projects to promote nature-based learning, as long as they tie in with Illinois curriculum and core standards. For instance, during their butterfly unit, students study the butterfly life cycle, and the school orders the larvae so kids can watch the transformation in real time. Johnson said they put the desks in circles with a table holding the larvae in the middle so the kids can keep a close watch. "Once they're in their pupa stage they can see them coming out of the chrysalis. The kids love it!" When they turn into adult Painted Lady butterflies, the students release them outside. And, when studying the weather unit, the students will make instruments like weather vanes and anemometers and take them outside, so they can write about weather conditions such as wind speed and direction, cloud type and temperature.

The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, founded in 1934, is a refuge for birds of prey and an international center for raptor conservation. The mountaintop preserve in Kempton, Pa., sits on 2,600 acres and offers scenic overlooks, eight miles of trails, a native plant garden with a pond, several small wetlands, a visitor center, and the Acopian Center for Conservational Learning. Their mission is to conserve birds of prey worldwide by maintaining the sanctuary as a model observation, research and education facility. The public can participate in workshops, lectures, weekend nature programs, or simply hike, explore or come for the autumn hawk migration.

Education offerings include guided group programs where participants receive an overview of the sanctuary by an educator, and discussions which might include natural history, raptor identification, migration information, geography or information on Appalachian forest ecology. Students and participants can then explore the sanctuary and forest on their own. Live birds can also be incorporated.

"We currently have four avian ambassadors that we use in our education programs," said Erin Brown, director of education. "We receive birds from wildlife rehabilitators. These birds are deemed un-releasable by a vet due to an injury."

Brown believes that service-learning, citizen science and project-based learning are excellent ways to connect youth to the outdoors. "Youth are the next generation of decision-makers for our planet. They'll need to make informed decisions about the environment in their daily and political lives. In order to do this effectively, they must have had positive hands-on educational experiences outdoors."

Hawk Mountain also offers a distance-education program, with learning facilitated via Skype videoconferencing. A raptor trunk filled with learning materials is sent prior to the program, which are different for elementary, middle or high school students. "For example, the high school trunk contains a radio telemetry unit with instructions. The lesson plan focuses on satellite telemetry data we've gathered from raptors we've tagged. In this way we mesh our conservation scientists' research with our education department's programs and outreach," Brown said.

Internships are another great way to encourage young people to step into environmental livelihoods, and Hawk Mountain has recently launched a full-time paid spring and fall internship program in addition to their summer program. Interns receive conservation science and education training, do independent projects such as working on curricula, and work with scientists in the field. They also offer part-time and credit internships run through colleges. "The International Trainee program and the Education Internship program train and support students and conservationists all over the world," Brown said. "We've trained 411 trainees from 75 countries since 1976."

Back at the Audubon Center, Hale said that some of the kids who visited at an early age came back to intern in high school or college. She's also seen—particularly with their Conservation Treks program—high school students switch their declared major as they headed to college due to meeting a variety of people in environmental careers. "I'm also seeing many millennials who are passionate about the environment trying to see if there's space for them in this field, many coming from a more traditional business degree, but discovering they have a passion for nature and really want to do something to help the environment."

Hancock said they often hear about individuals whose love for nature began at Riverbend as kids, and this sometimes plants the seeds that lead to careers or volunteer work in conservation. Kaitlyn Martin was once a young camper at Riverbend, and she returned to serve as a summer camp educator, and then returned again to serve as assistant camp director. She's currently working on her doctorate at the Centre for Science Communication in New Zealand. "As a camper," Martin said, "Riverbend was one of the first places I had the opportunity to explore and learn about the natural world, later inspiring my study of evolutionary biology in college. The best part of Riverbend is that it makes learning fun—and muddy if you're lucky!"

Our natural world is facing tough times, and maybe our best line of defense is getting a kid interested in a flower or a frog. "It's really no secret that the environmental problems we face as a nation and planet are daunting," Hancock said. "In view of this, the next generation will be forced to make informed decisions to address changing environmental conditions."

She pointed to a National Environmental Training Foundation study showing that while 95 percent of American adults support environmental education in schools, a stunning 80 percent are influenced by incorrect or outdated environmental myths. "Raising the environmental literacy of Americans citizens—especially our youth—is a clear priority."

Up on Hawk Mountain, Brown simply adds this: "How can you be a good steward for something you know nothing about?"

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