Education through Restoration - Creating Meaningful Service-Learning Projects in the Parks

August 3, 2012 by Parks Conservancy Staff

I love breakfast meetings. First off, there is breakfast. Plus I am a morning person so I’m freshest and most engaged for these early morning gatherings. A couple of days ago I found myself at a breakfast meeting sitting next to a woman who works with youth through the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. I had just returned from a week-long training on service learning with the Community Works Institute so when she mentioned that her kids need to perform community service and asked if there was anything they could do in the parks my answer was a resounding “Yes!” – but with a twist. I said we had lots of opportunities for youth service projects in the parks, but that we aim to have our programs go beyond service to service-learning. She was clutching her coffee (not a morning person, perhaps) and looked at me with a quizzical what’s the difference? expression.

I immediately leapt into a quick overview of how ‘service learning’ builds on ‘community service’, enriching the participant experience significantly. I stressed that if her kids came out into the parks with us they would not only complete a great project, they would actually be given the opportunity to understand more about the why of the work. We would help make connections between their on-the-ground efforts and the larger needs that they are helping to address. Perhaps most importantly, though, they would have the chance to reflect on the impact they were having – and the impact the work was having on them.

Shelburne Farms

Before I began CWI’s Institute on Service Learning EAST at Shelburne Farms just outside of Burlington, Vermont, I felt sure that our educational programs were already using service learning. Joining me at the training were Taiji Nelson, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Education Program Coordinator, and two Naturalist Educators from the Frick Environmental Center, Lydia Konecky and Eva Barinas. The Parks Conservancy Board of Directors had generously agreed to fund this professional development opportunity for all of us in order to build our team and strengthen our education programs in anticipation of a new Environmental Center that we hope to begin construction on in 2013.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has been working closely for several years with the Environmental Center staff to knit our environmental education programs together. We are all using the theme of education through restoration as a guiding principle and are jointly giving folks of all ages the chance to learn about the local environment as they do meaningful, hands-on work in Pittsburgh parks. Still, before the training if someone had asked me what exactly I meant by service-learning or how that was different from community service, I would have fumbled. As a team we have been delivering our programs using well-honed instincts developed over years of doing outdoor education with youth and adults. This was our chance to build on this knowledge by examining best practices in the field of service learning, critically looking at our existing programs, and taking time to consider how to apply these ideas back home.

Now, after 40 hours of training including 8 workshops, daily work with my incredibly thoughtful peer discussion group, more daily work with my Best Practices Study Group, an icy-cold dip in a Vermont stream, walk and talks with my fellow Pittsburghers, fantastic lunches prepared with local foods by Shelburne Farms, and reflection, reflection, reflection…not only can I articulate how our environmental education programs use service-learning or why that is important – I now have concrete ideas for how to make our programs better.

My big a-ha moment for the week came during the workshop Reflection: An Essential Ingredient. We already include reflection in our High School Urban EcoStewards program through daily journaling and end-of-year presentations. This year’s students did everything from create a Tree ID game to illustrate a watercolor book on how to plant a tree. But I realized during the workshop that we could be infusing all of our programs with reflection, even our one-day volunteer events. Last year we had more than 1,500 volunteers contribute time to the parks. What if every volunteer day included time for fun and simple reflection, helping people gain a deeper understanding of the value of their work? This could be as simple posing questions for people to consider as they carry tools back from the work site such as, “What does this project mean to my community? To the park? To our rivers?” We could also ask for reflection on the day in follow-up online surveys.

The Institute also made me realize that we could do a better job revealing our educational goals to our students. Last summer we worked with 3 teachers to develop the Big Ideas for our High School Urban EcoSteward program and map the program to the PA State Standards. Why not share these directly with the kids – let them know what we thought was important for them to learn and why? Our High School students do so much fantastic work for the parks (just this past year they planted close to 300 trees), but have we dialogued enough with them on how each tree planting connects to improved water quality? We certainly present this information at the beginning of our sessions, but I’m looking forward to giving our students more room to explore their sites and develop their own observations and questions about the impact of their stewardship.

In many ways, though, the single most important part of the week was bonding with our Pittsburgh team. A few of my favorites moments: early breakfasts with Eva (also a morning person); searching the shores of Lake Champlain for the most beautiful rocks until our hands were overflowing; racing to our car through a magnificent summer downpour at the end of a day; and spending evenings huddled on lawn chairs in the cool Vermont air sharing stories of past travels around the world.

Our Pittsburgh Pack

It was these in-between times where I really got to discover more about each of our backgrounds and our visions for the future. It was great confirmation of what I already knew: we have an absolutely incredible group of environmental educators here, people who are committed to connecting people with nature and making our City even better. The workshop was the perfect chance to practice lifelong learning together, prepare us for another year of our growing environmental education programs, and reaffirm what we all believe – that giving students a chance to not just learn about our local environment but actually improve it is the key to fostering the park stewards and engaged citizens of the future.

Marijke Hecht is the Director of Education at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Please visit our website for upcoming volunteer days and updates on the development of the new Environmental Center at Frick Park. If you're interested in making a donation to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to help us continue our education through restoration, please visit our Donate page on our website.

Learning and Education, Frick Environmental Center, Photography, High School Urban EcoStewards, Volunteering