“Look at the bark!” a student bellows.
A piece of candy sails through the air and a playful scuffle erupts when it lands between two students. Ultimately the orange piece of cellophane wrapped candy is relinquished to the student who correctly named one of the ways to identify a tree. The group eagerly awaits the next question from their peers standing at the front of the class, who are clearly enjoying the power their bag of confections has afforded them.
I joined these twelve 10th graders from City Charter High School in Schenley Park to see what they have learned. As students in the High School Urban EcoSteward program, they’ve spent quite a bit of time in this park over the past school year. Six different times they put on their brown Urban EcoSteward T-shirts and carried their tools, plant materials, and journals down into Panther Hollow to their site, which sits on a steep slope beside Panther Hollow Lake. Today they’re demonstrating their knowledge by presenting to their peers, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy education staff, and their teacher who they all affectionately refer to as “Mr. G.” Their presentations vary from a game show-like quiz with candy prizes, to a display complete with a how-to pamphlet on making bunny hutches out of discarded invasive plants, to a nature walk, and a check dam installation demonstration.
As EcoStewards, these students took on this bit of park land and promised to make it better. The high school program uses service learning techniques to engage students in formal instruction which also provides a meaningful service to benefit the community. Each excursion out into whatever the weather had in store for them that day was a learning opportunity. A lesson on the importance of trees was followed with how to plant one. Discussion of how invasive plant species hurt the ecological diversity of our parks was a precursor to the proper removal of jet bead which had infested the hillside.
“You have to cut it down all the way to the ground,” a student says as she prepares to demonstrate.
“What are those called,” Parks Conservancy Director of Education Marijke Hecht challenges, pointing to the orange-handled tool in the girl’s hand.
“They’re loppers,” she smiles.
The High School Urban EcoSteward program was piloted with City High School students in 2009 and has since expanded to five additional schools – Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, Perry High School, Pittsburgh Milliones, The Ellis School, and the YMCA Westinghouse Lighthouse Project. Each school has a site in one of the four regional Pittsburgh parks – Frick, Highland, Riverview, and Schenley. This year’s High School Urban EcoSteward program was made possible by funding in part by the American Eagle Outfitters Foundation, the Dominion Educational Partnership, and the Grable Foundation.
We’ve ascended into the heart of the site about halfway up a steep hill where two students are showing us the check dams that the group had put in place using fallen logs to control erosion. This is a huge issue in the Panther Hollow Watershed which is evidenced by the fire hydrant at the base of the hill which has been buried almost completely. The students explain that the check dams will slow the storm water as it comes down the hill and catch sediment. In the same area they point out trees the group has planted to help further stabilize the hillside.
On our way back down to the path, two of the boys in the group stop to make sure I’ve got my footing.
“You have to go down sideways,” one of them instructs.
“Those shoes don’t have great tread on them,” the other gently scolds. Both were clearly proud to be helpful with their thoughtful instruction and care that I make it down safely.
These boys and their classmates have learned more than how to help a lady down a hillside. As I watched them present what they’ve learned, each of them in a unique and thoughtful way, I marveled at the complexity of the concepts they all clearly understood. The importance of the watershed and managing storm water runoff, the benefits of trees and ecological diversity, just to name a few. They understand how to identify trees using branching patterns, bark, and leaves. They did hard work with real tools and can quickly recite the proper use for each of them. They challenge each other with questions and push each other to work harder. They’re all clearly proud of what they’ve done.
“My favorite part was planting trees and removing invasive species,” one of the girls tells me. I ask her why and she pauses a moment. “I’d never made a difference like that before,” she says.
The 2011/12 High School Urban EcoSteward program did make a difference. The teenagers from these six schools donated more than 1,600 hours of service to our city parks, planting 228 trees and removing at least 70 bags of invasive species. They wrote thoughtful things in journals that helped them to create a deeper connection with natural space. Their environmental education will encourage them to become considerate citizens who understand their impact on our urban green spaces. From this, we all benefit.
Kathleen Gaines is a Development Associate for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. If your organization is interested in supporting this important program please contact her at 412.682.7275 x220.
You don’t have to be a high school student to get out in the parks and start making a difference. Learn more about the Urban EcoSteward Program and get involved by coming to one of our trainings or taking on your own EcoSteward site. Or come to one of our volunteer days and work with a group. Don’t feel comfortable with a pair of loppers? You can make a donation on our website that will benefit environmental education by selecting the Davita Colker Bryant and Laura Michelle Colker Fund as your gift designation.