Feature Article - April 2017
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Pass It On

Cultivating New Nature-Lovers With Environmental Education Programs

By Dave Ramont

When hearing mention of The Audubon Society, most people automatically think of birds. And while it's true that the nonprofit conservation organization promotes awareness of our fine feathered friends, they also possess loftier goals—from protecting and restoring local habitats to implementing policies that safeguard all wildlife and our natural resources. At the heart of that mission is a commitment to education—laying the foundation of future conservation by inspiring more people to value and protect the natural world. The Audubon achieves this through 500 local chapters and 41 nature centers—many of which are found in urban areas as they look to engage new, more diverse audiences. Each year, the Audubon Adventures program reaches 100,000 school kids alone.

How do park districts, forest preserves, schools and environmental agencies get kids (and adults) outside to gain an understanding of their natural surroundings—creating a new generation of environmentalists? Here, we'll offer up a few examples of successful programs from across the United States.

Driving east on Loop 12, 10 minutes south of downtown Dallas, you might see hawks, sparrows, scissor-tail flycatchers or bluebirds among the abundant prairie vegetation. You'll then come upon the Trinity River Audubon Center, sitting on 130 acres along the Trinity River.

For 30 years, an illegally operated dump sat here, until it was shut down and became an EPA Superfund site. Now it's native Blackland Prairie and bottomland hardwood forest, according to Lucy Hale, the center's director.

And while visitors can simply hike, birdwatch or participate in guided programs, the center is dedicated to offering educational opportunities for young people, believing that getting kids outside into natural areas and giving them authentic experiences there creates a lifelong passion for protecting that environment.

Hale said that upon learning what the site once was, kids can't fathom how someone would harm the environment like that, and they're amazed at the transformation the land has undertaken to get back to nature. "That's the deep connection that will help ensure that this generation of kids becomes protectors of our planet," she said.

How do park districts, forest preserves, schools and environmental agencies get kids (and adults) outside to gain an understanding of their natural surroundings?

Trinity River's signature academic program for K-12 students is called Eco-Investigations, and more than 20,000 students participate each year with a curriculum geared toward the state's educational standards. Hale said it's "… a unique program in that an educator is paired with a group of students for three or four hours doing outdoor and wet-lab investigations."

Students explore the three ecosystems unique to the center—forest, prairie and river—during a hike. Pre-K through second grade students might meet an animal up close or learn about pond life. High-schoolers may partake in a bird-focused program including identification and data collection, or evaluate the consequences of natural disasters on food webs.

Schoolyard Investigations is a school-partner program designed to help students engage with their schoolyard environment, while increasing observation and documentation skills, culminating with a trip to the Audubon Center. Themes include animal homes, food chains, trees, insects, birds and geology.

Kids may visit Trinity River multiple times through their elementary, middle and high school careers. Hale said many of them initially have the same trepidations about being outside, mostly relating to poison ivy and bears (there are no bears), but their fears are quickly assuaged by the environmental educators. They fill out eco-journals during their programs, providing them with a comfortable, focused activity. "By the end of the day, the students are pros at being outside and have gone through an experience they will never forget."

Trinity River also offers fall, spring and summer Adventure Camps. "These are week long drop-off programs that offer kids the ability to have a fun, nature-based experience during their school vacation times," Hale said. Conservation Treks is a program where urban high school students are taken on weeklong camping expeditions to state and national parks in Texas, where they learn outdoor survival skills and work with local environmental leaders participating in conservation work.

The Riverbend Environmental Education Center in Gladwyne, Pa., was established in 1974 on property that was once a Civil War camp. The 30-acre preserve is open to the public and features walking trails, ponds, woodlands, a meadow habitat, a stream and a Sears Roebuck barn built in 1923. Initially a wildlife refuge offering a few camps and programs, Riverbend has become a dynamic center for nature and science education initiatives aimed to engage future generations in environmental stewardship, serving more than 20,000 people annually through education programs and other special events.

Director of Development Lisa Hancock relates how many who work in environmental fields made their first deep connections with nature playing in neighborhood creeks or tramping through meadows and woodlands. "Nature connections make memorable, lasting impressions that—tied with scientific research—drive conservation work. We've seen over and over that when children engage with nature through their own sensory experiences and learn how ecological systems work, they develop the passion to protect the natural world."