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Engaging Young Minds for the Future of Conservation

August 23, 2017 11:00 AM

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Along the banks of the Youghiogheny River, a group of teens lash together logs into a makeshift raft. They shout out suggestions and encouragement to each other, some feeling more confident than others, but all charged with the anticipation of their craft’s maiden voyage.

Raft Building - Youth Engagement Blog 8-23-17.jpg
At Pennsylvania’s largest state park -- Ohiopyle -- kayakers, rafters, bicyclists, and anglers look on with amusement and possibly mild concern about why they aren’t in school.

In fact, they are in school. Their classroom today just happens to be a state park in Fayette County, and their temporary teachers are energetic and knowledgeable DCNR environmental educators.

These high school students are participating in a field trip experience that was organized by the state park and their teachers. In addition to enjoying a fine day on the river, they’re conducting a physics experiment and connecting it to U.S. and local history.

DCNR’s Focus on Creating Lasting Relationships with Youth

No surprise -- there is a growing disparity between the time kids spend indoors wired to technology and the time they spend outside enjoying nature.

The vast majority of today’s kids use a computer, watch TV, or play video games on a daily basis. Only about 10 percent say they are spending time outdoors every day, according to a nationwide poll done by The Nature Conservancy.

A DCNR strategic initiative is to better engage with Pennsylvania’s youth, including expanding the ways we engage teens/young adults, since it’s during the teen years when they are thinking about their next steps in life -- college or trades.

DCNR looks to pursue by providing diverse, educational:

  • Outdoor recreation opportunities
  • Unique camps
  • Internships
  • Summer jobs

In addition, an effective way to get older kids in parks is to target schools by offering education programs that both students and educators find meaningful and rewarding.

Youth Engagement Through Conservation Education Programming

DCNR employees who routinely conduct education programs were asked to participate in an informal survey to determine current teen programming trends.

Of the 143 responses received, 98 said they performed some type of programming for youth ages 14-18. Sixty-two employees continued to answer questions specific to programming for this age group:

  • 535 programs were conducted for high school-age students between September 2015 and August 2016
  • 13,560 youth, 14-18 years old, participated in these programs
  • This equated to 29 percent of the total programming conducted by these 62 employees
  • The majority of youth participating in these programs were associated with a public or private high school
  • Other youth audiences included organizations such as YMCA, Big Brothers/Sisters, and DCNR programs, such as ECO Camp and Adventure Camps

What Do These Programs Look Like?

Visit a Pennsylvania state park or forest and you will likely find environmental education specialists, environmental interpretive technicians, service foresters, and forest program specialists immersing students in their natural resources.

Here are a few specific examples of the many innovative ways DCNR is using education to connect with high school students:

Using Scientific Inquiry and Natural Laboratories to Address Real-World Issues

Jennings Environmental Education Center photo
Jennings Environmental Education Center recognized that a great deal of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is required to manage the millions of acres of DCNR land, so the center looked to recruit inquisitive youth to ask critical questions about the park and then design studies to answer them.

Throughout the 2016-2017 school year, students investigated issues related to:

  • Water quality
  • Abandoned mine drainage
  • Prairie management
  • Endangered species recovery
  • Forest altered due to invasive species and changing climate

After several preparatory in-class visits from DCNR staff, the students visited Jennings to conduct their scientific investigations testing their own hypothesis related to a resource management issue.

More than 500 students from five schools participated.

“I always do an end-of-year survey of my students, and they once again have written how much they enjoyed the Jennings visit and investigations. As several students wrote, they truly feel like real scientists and wish they had more time to continue the research they started at Jennings. One student commented to me that they knew about dependent and independent variables, but it wasn't until they designed their own investigation that they truly understood what the words meant.” -- Sandy Strosko, Canon-McMillan High School teacher

Improving the Watershed through Service Projects and Citizen Science

For the past 16 years, Lackawanna and Nescopeck state parks have facilitated Community Connections to Our Watershed -- a high school environmental forum that has involved more than:

  • 14 high schools
  • 50 teachers
  • 780 students

Students participate in place-based educational field sessions that focus on the Susquehanna River Watershed and network with many groups and agencies. Youth from different schools work together to improve their shared watershed through service projects and citizen science.

Sessions are modeled after the DCNR Bureau of State Parks’ Watershed Education program. The forum introduces students to a variety of environmental careers. Some of the participating students have embarked on career paths directly related to this experience.

One participant shared:

“This program opened my eyes and showed me how to save our environment one person at a time.” -- Christy Havrilla, Student Hazleton Area High School

Experimenting to Understand Pennsylvania Climate

Youth identifying crystals photo
At Ohiopyle State Park, students participate in a History of Winter program that culminates in a park field trip called the Climate Summit.

The program begins with park staff visiting classrooms to introduce students to techniques NASA uses to study climate change and help students develop their own Thermocron (temperature data logger) experiments. Students complete the experiments on their own and present their findings at the Climate Summit at Ohiopyle.

Climate Summit activities also include:

  • An introduction to ice thin sectioning and crystallization
  • A snowflake investigation and photo acquisition using digital microscopes
  • Snow pit investigations -- students investigate snow depth, density, crystallization, and temperature in snow pits and then compare it to recent weather data to help explain the snow characteristics found in the pit
  • A wildlife ecology snow shoe expedition -- students learn about how living organisms have adapted to surviving life in the winter world and they engage in a wintertime physical activity

At the culmination of the program, students discuss global climate change and how their own behavior can have an impact.

Competing on Conservation Knowledge

Cook Forest State Park’s annual Earth Day Envirothon Challenge -- sponsored by the Clarion County Conservation District and DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry -- is a round-robin series of programs designed to help western Pennsylvania area students prepare for their state Envirothon competitions.

A variety of presenters from multiple agencies and interest groups assist with environmental education programming to more than 600 program participants incorporating topics such as:

  • Watershed education
  • Forestry and tree identification
  • Invasive species
  • Wildlife identification
  • Reptile and amphibian identification
  • Water and soil conservation

The Future of DCNR Youth Engagement

What if, before graduation, every Pennsylvania student had physics class on the banks of a river, chemistry class in a stream, creative writing in a hemlock forest, or history by an iron furnace, or even hiked the Appalachian Trail for gym class? What if they were more aware of the public lands available to them and ways to conserve their environment?

The survey taken by DCNR staff working with youth has identified some challenges to working with high schools, including:

  • Transporting students to parks
  • Fitting DCNR programs into an already busy class schedule
  • Promoting these unique opportunities to teachers and administrators
  • Having adequate number of staff to facilitate these programs

DCNR hopes to increase the number of programs conducted for high school age youth by 5 percent by 2018 by addressing identified challenges through strategic partnerships and communication.

To find out what educational programs are currently available for high school students, and other age groups, at a state park or forest near you, visit DCNR’s calendar of events or contact your local state park or state forest.

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