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Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy inspires next generation of urban eco-stewards in local parks

Jennifer Reeher
February26/ 2015

On a cool spring morning, a group of Pittsburgh middle school students explore the streams of a local park. They turn over rocks and kick up sediment hunting for the insects, arachnids and other organisms that can provide clues about the stream’s health. They are curious, active and engaged as they explore in their quest to collect data and solve problems. Not only are they having fun, but they’re learning in the best way possible: hands-on.

These students are just one group experiencing the innovative STEM-based environmental science curriculum developed by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy for students at Pittsburgh Public Schools and local charter schools.

Spearheaded by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy in conjunction with local teachers and curriculum experts, the program is designed to turn our city’s parks into laboratories for environmental education. Complementing what the students learn in the classroom, the curriculum takes the lesson one step further–directly into nature. Using the same tools as practicing scientists, the young people generate hypotheses, collect data, problem solve and even conduct stewardship projects to improve habitat health. Ongoing throughout the year, the program engages kids from elementary to high school.

“Not just children, but all people can learn best by having concrete, experiential experiences,” says Marijke Hecht, director of education at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “This program helps kids take the concepts they learn in the classroom and move them into the field where they can see those concepts in action, ask questions and deepen their understanding of the material. That sort of experiential education solidifies the concepts in a way that no lecture could ever do.”

The Conservancy’s focus is not just on students. They also offer training for local teachers hoping to integrate fieldwork into their own classes. “We want all of the classroom teachers to feel comfortable with the material and content, but also with the experience of teaching out of doors,” says Hecht who brings these educators into the parks and demonstrates strategies to make this leap. Not only does this training give instructors the tools to handle the change in atmosphere, but teachers can also earn Act 48 credits in the process.

Recently, Hecht was awarded the 2015 Carnegie Science Center Award for Leadership in STEM Education for her work with this program, and the impact on local youth is substantial. Not only are students becoming active participants in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, but many are also discovering a love for science.

Geneva, a student at City Charter High School, says, “When I first joined the High School Urban EcoStewards program and then I became a crew leader, it wasn’t too long after that I could see myself doing something in college, whether I major in environmental science or geology or something of that sort.”

Hecht believes that the curriculum can inspire the next generation of scientific thinkers. “The reason I love environmental education is because it is grounded in real-life issues, and to do it in a place-based way using the local environment is thrilling,” she says. “Many of these kids don’t see themselves in lab coats, but they still have scientific minds. With this program, we are able to get more people involved and interested in the sciences, which means more young minds addressing the pressing issues in today’s world.”

Featured photo: Young naturalist, Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Jennifer Reeher