Parks as classrooms, parks as offices: A Public Ally perspective

October 31, 2013 by Parks Conservancy Staff

When I first applied to Public Allies, an AmeriCorps-run leadership development program, my idea of working in a professional office setting was stereotypical. I envisioned boring, tedious tasks. I pictured myself sitting at a desk all day, slaving away at paperwork and waiting desperately for 5:00 to roll around. These thoughts made me nervous, and I considered not going through with Public Allies. After my first week of placement with The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, I found out how wrong I actually was. Many Public Allies are now going through the cliche office experience, but thanks to the Parks Conservancy, I probably spend enough time out of the office for them to be jealous of me.

Reading two poems about nature before sending HSUES students into Frick Park to journal

These past few weeks have been a huge surprise and loads of fun for me. I thought this job would bring boring, slow days, but I was definitely proven wrong. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here. The first day of Habitat Explorers started it all. Habitat Explorers is a program that teaches kindergartners and 1st graders about habitats in nature. The program also teaches the students about community, both in our society and outdoors. Children from a variety of schools, including Colfax, Faison, Community Day, and Propel Braddock Hills participate in the program.

1st grade Habitat Explorers throw seed bombs at a praying mantis target in a meadow

The program includes an activity that involves throwing seeds into a meadow. This activity helps the meadow grow back healthier the following spring. Seeing how interested the kids were during the lesson about community and habitat and how much fun they had exploring the meadow also made me very excited. Observing the students’ thirst for knowledge gave me a sense of hope, especially for the future of society. These kids loved the idea that they were scientists, taking samples and bringing them back to the laboratory – even though the labs were only a tent and a tool shed. Some of the smallest findings – a tiny spider in a goldenrod flower, for instance – seemed unimportant to me, but were huge breakthroughs for some of the kids.

Seeing how fun learning was to the kids made me look at things in a different way. I was always a curious person, asking questions about everything I saw, especially as a kid. As I grew older, though, I lost some of the passion I had for learning and being curious. When I started working with Habitat Explorers, I started to reevaluate how I felt about learning. I thought, if these young 1st graders are just starting their education and are this excited to learn new things, shouldn't I, someone that knows so much more, be even more excited than they are? Every time that I have participated in a Habitat Explorers session, the students inspired me to become more and more interested in learning new things.

HSUES students reflect on their surroundings, keeping a journal throughout their time in the program

High School Urban Eco Stewards (HSUES) is another Parks Conservancy project that I enjoy. HSUES is a program that began as a way to teach high school students about watersheds and ecological restoration. The program actually takes the kids out into the parks to do hands-on field work that is truly helping the park environment. Sci-Tech, Westinghouse, Perry Traditional Academy, Ellis School, and City High participate in HSUES. These past few weeks, my coworker has been taking me to the HSUES sites to give me a feel for the work that we will be doing. Each high school has their own site (a section of woods that the school stewards throughout the year). Although I have not worked with HSUES in the field yet, working with students so close in age to myself as an instructor will most likely bring some interesting experiences.

Another program that I will be working with during my time here at the Parks Conservancy is the Mission Ground Truth (MGT). This program takes 7th and 8th graders into the forest to evaluate and determine the health of the forest and any streams that it contains. Students learn about how humans impact the environment. Just like the other programs, everything that MGT teaches is hands on. The students that participate are doing the jobs of real field ecologists with professional tools, such as pH sensors for measuring pollutants.

MGT students use GPS to map their site locations

A big part of my job is further integrating technology into our education programs. Many people believe that technology has taken children’s interest away from the outdoors and nature. I am trying to get rid of this pre-conceived notion that technology and environmental education cannot coexist. This will come by trial and error through different facets of the program. I am hopeful and excited for all of this to come together, and I am looking forward to a big year for the Parks Conservancy and for myself.

Lynn Johnson, Pittsburgh Parks Public Ally

Ecological Restoration, Learning and Education, Parks Conservancy Programs, High School Urban EcoStewards, Volunteering