“And how mad were your parents when you decided not to go to Law School?” joked Phil Thompson, Coordinator of the Lighthouse Project, as we walked back to the truck after lunch. “It didn’t matter, I found something I love,” I smiled back at him. It’s a surprisingly warm day at the end of November; we are out with a group of students from The Academy at Westinghouse for our High School Urban EcoStewards program. The students have adopted a quarter acre plot of land in Frick Park, and have come out this year once before and learned how to properly identify and remove invasive species and plant native trees at their site. Today’s session is a park walk; we spent time doing stewardship removing invasive vines within their site before setting out on a long hike through Frick Park to learn about managing ecosystem health within our city parks. One of our field ecologists has also joined us to talk about restoration practices in the park and to introduce the students to some different jobs in the Environmental Science field.
I began working in Environmental Education when I was a summer camp counselor at the Frick Environmental Center in 2010. I was majoring in Politics and Philosophy at Pitt, all set to continue on to Law School when I realized I didn’t have a job lined up for the summer. I heard about Frick Environmental Center from one of my friends in the Geology department. I grew up outside with my brothers LARPing in Slippery Rock’s local woodlands, hiking all over McConnell’s Mills, and swimming in Moraine State Park. I needed a summer job, and they had an opening where I could work outside. I went into it thinking it would be a fun thing to do for the summer, but it actually changed the course of my career. I got paid to teach lessons about the natural world and enjoy the outdoors with children. Could it get any better?
It did. Here I am two years and some odd months later and the kids teach me more than I could ever hope to teach them. If there’s one thing I consistently take away from my job as an informal educator it’s inspiration, particularly with this group. Today we’re working with students who are part of the YMCA Lighthouse Project at Westinghouse. A few of them have done the High School Urban Eco Stewards program before, for some it’s their first time. This forces us to be flexible, sometimes letting the returning students take the lead, sometimes going into more depth about concepts they’re already aware of. This is one of my favorite aspects of my job: every day is different. While this is the third High School Urban Eco Stewards park walk of the week, it’s the first walk in Frick Park and because of the Lighthouse’s media focus; there are new components we haven’t covered with previous schools.
Every session of High School Urban Eco Stewards incorporates a journaling component for students to practice making good scientific observations. Sometimes we sketch or we’ll write poems, other times we’ll free write for a determined period of time. But today is different. The Lighthouse has a photography module the students can choose to participate in, and while only a few of the students here today are also in the photography module, we jumped at the chance to incorporate photography into our science lessons. We were able to obtain a digital camera for each of the students to use. After our Education Program Coordinator, Taiji, briefly introduces some strategies to compose a good shot, with the Lighthouse coordinator adding a few thoughts, each student searches for one thing they find beautiful and one thing they find intriguing. The trick is that they get just one shot each. They must take their time utilizing their observation skills we’ve been developing to locate that one beautiful thing or that one intriguing visual. After they’ve decided what they want to capture, they must move around, change their perspective, change the lighting patterns, until they find that perfect shot.
Then they write about it in their journals. I prompt them to justify their decisions. I hear myself tenaciously asking why? I try to play it cool and be discerning about their choices when photographing but inside I am just thrilled. At 15 or 16 years, old these students are incredibly inspiring. Learning about their lives and aspirations is refreshing; these students are dedicated and hardworking. To be able to share my love of the outdoors with them and possibly cultivate that same feeling within them is a unique opportunity I am grateful for every day. They stay after school at the Lighthouse until 7:00pm Monday-Thursday (mind you their school day starts around 7:00am), they argue about who is going to be valedictorian, and at times they really challenge me, asking, “Why are we out here doing this when there are people starving?”
As I’m compiling all of their photos, from the day I can’t help but smile and think about what Phil had asked me about law school. I eagerly abandoned a potential life of working long hours stuck behind a computer, working my way up to someday maybe occupying that corner office with the view. At best, I’d sit at my desk captivated by the magic occurring on the other side of my window, only to look glumly back at all of the paperwork I had to do. As an informal environmental educator, I spend days at a time in “the field,” teaching students about ecology, watersheds, and biodiversity while facilitating a deep and informed appreciation for and relationship with the natural world. “No,” I smirk “my parents aren’t mad at all.”
Below are a few of the breathtaking photos the Westinghouse students took during the day. The students meticulously set-up each shot and there are no filters applied to these photos. It's so powerful to see nature through someone else's eyes.
Bailey Warren is the new Education Program Assistant at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy through a 10-month apprenticeship with Public Allies Pittsburgh AmeriCorps program. Visit our website to learn more about our High School Urban EcoSteward program and how you can get involved.