The RMRS Conservation Education Program (CE) promotes public awareness of our complex forest ecosystems and the work of U.S. Forest Service research scientists. With the environmental challenges facing us today - climate change, species survival, wildfire, and water shortages - it is important to help citizens, especially kids, understand the functions and challenges of natural ecosystems and the need to study them.
Since 2005, CE has funded education activities through a microgrant program for local educators who partner with RMRS staff. The main qualification for funding is that programs must inform and excite youth about forests and forest research. Special consideration is given to proposals that reach underserved youth populations, include hands-on activities, and get kids outside.
2016 has been an excellent year! The RMRS leadership team increased our available grant funds from $5,000 to $10,000 and, for the first time ever, we were able to fund every qualified grant proposal.
Below are descriptions of completed programs that received CE microgrants, a few programs that were funded by the national Every Kid in a Park fund, and some that RMRS staff led or participated in without any outside funding. Thank you to program leaders and partners for their innovation and dedication, and to the RMRS leadership team for believing in conservation education.
The Desert Experimental Range is a long-term, biosphere center for cold desert rangeland research in Utah. Stan Kitchen, RMRS Research Botanist, led 19 middle school students from the Promontory School of Expeditionary Learning on an extremely ambitious five-day excursion to the site in May 2016. He guided the kids and their chaperones through field activities and analyses in botany, dendrology, archaeology, and wildlife biology. They gained valuable insights into how to formulate and address practical ecological questions such as: how effective are trail cameras for monitoring kit foxes? What can pinyon pine tree rings tells us about drought?
Highlights of the participants’ accomplishments included coring trees and prepping cores for analysis, collecting and counting insects from pollinator traps, sketching petroglyphs, and studing quality of photo images from trail cameras.
The students discovered that sometimes their research was exciting – like observing kit foxes and feral horses - while at other times, windblown vegetation made for really boring webcam photos. This is the program’s third year. Conservation education microgrants funds paid for 19 partial student scholarships, materials and supplies for presentation boards, and trail cams and supplies which will be reused.
More than 250 fourth and fifth graders from Rendezvous Elementary School in Driggs, Idaho, investigated snow melt in streams within the Teton River Watershed. They also used their knowledge of rock cycle, fossils, plate tectonics and glaciers to discover aspects of geologic evolution in Teton Canyon. The program instills local students with a sense of stewardship regarding the watershed by having them conduct field studies within this vast natural resource. They engaged in numerous activities including identification of aquatic macroinvertebrates, and comparing macroinvertebrate populations between a snowmelt stream and a spring-fed creek. More students will participate before the end of the year.
Whitney Burgess, from the RMRS Inventory and Monitoring Program, was a program leader. Partners included Caribou-Targhee National Forest, Friends of Teton River, and the RMRS-Forest Inventory and Analysis Program. CE microgrant funds covered equipment and materials for both the stream study and geology field trips, as well as transportation costs for the Friends of the Teton River Education Coordinator.
The 9th Priest River Forest Expo was held on May 26-27, 2016 at the historic Priest River Experimental Forest (PREF), beneath perfect spring skies. Nearly 190 sixth graders attended with dozens of teachers, parents, and local volunteers. Each year Expo coordinators, with assistance from regional experts, excite sixth graders about knowledge and management of natural resources.
The event was – as usual – a great success. A key Expo message is that knowledge gained through the scientific process can be applied to conservation, use, and enjoyment of local forestlands. Activities to introduce this message included papermaking, timber harvest, forest climate science, forest fire behavior and management, and tree identification.
The Priest Community Forestry Connection and the RMRS Forest and Woodland Ecosystems (FWE) program area collaborated on the event. Recently retired FWE Forester and PREF Superintendent Bob Denner, FWE Hydrologist and new PREF Superintendent Ben Kopyscianski, and FWE Geneticist Marcus Warwell helped facilitate this year, along with other volunteers and businesses. Costs of busing can be prohibitive for school field trips, but a CE microgrant paid for students’ transportation to the event.
Northern Arizona University sponsors two unique, week-long Forestry Camps, one for kids aged 9-10 and the other for ages 11-12. The goals are to teach kids basic concepts of forestry and environmental science as they pertain to research and forest stewardship. Most activities are outdoors and include aquatic and terrestrial wildlife surveys. A CE microgrant, implemented by Brenda Strohmeyer at the RMRS Flagstaff office, provided a total of eight, full scholarships for students who needed financial assistance.
The dance project titled Changing Balance/Balancing Change uses dance, with audience participation, to demonstrate how climate change impacts our world. In September 2016, almost 900 students and teachers from Flathead valley, Montana, joined trained dancers to illustrate concepts such as the greenhouse effect and how glaciers form. The dance focused on the visible, dramatic changes that are happening in Glacier National Park. Regional schools already teach the basics of climate change, but this kinetic, creative activity holds students’ attention: at least one described it as “awesome.”
The main partnership was between the CoMotion Dance Project and the Glacier National Park Conservancy, but RMRS was able to contribute through Vita Wright of the Northern Rockies Fire Science Network and CE microgrant funds that she was awarded.
In 2016, staff from the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab led fire science activities at multiple events for more than 300 fourth grade students from regional elementary schools in the greater Missoula area. Students used hands-on activities from the FireWorks curriculum to learn about the physical science of wildland fire, fire ecology, and fire history, and tree identification.
Ecologist Ilana Abrahamson, Biological Science Technician Eva Masin, cooperator Shannon Murphy, and contract employee Caitlyn Berkowitz, led the activities. Funds from Every Kid in a Park were used to purchase materials for the FireWorks curriculum. Specific events are described below.
More than 60 students visited the Fire Lab to learn about local tree identification and fire behavior.
The Fire Lab manned a fire behavior booth at Chief Carlo Elementary School, which was attended by more than 200 students and parents.
Chinese families in the Albuquerque area had a special weekend in June, 2016. Kids watched, identified, and captured fish, mammals, and insects with assistance from natural resources professionals. Kids and their families learned about local species diversity, and different species’ habitats – and they got to camp out overnight.
Yancey Ranspot, support services specialist from the RMRS Grassland Shrubs and Deserts lab, assisted with the event, and he was able to obtain copies of Aldo Leopold’s Green Fire and A Sand County Almanac in Mandarin from the Aldo Leopold Foundation! Partners in this event included New Mexico Department of Fish & Game, New Mexico Youth Conservation Foundation, and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
The RMRS Grasslands, Shrubs, and Desert Ecosystems lab in Albuquerque created a Bug World operating station, largely through the efforts of Yancey Ranspot, who appears to be tireless!
Bug World demonstrates, through hands-on activities, how to use insect viewers, field guides, pit traps, magnifying glasses and terrestrial bug displays, and teaches kids about insects’ roles in the environment. Students are able to explore, collect, and identify insects and arachnids in the ecosystem. RMRS presented hands-on learning about terrestrial insects and their role in the environment. Yancey brought Bug World to these events in 2016 (in addition to other programs):
Bosque School Field Day, which was attended by 132 fourth and fifth grade students. GSD Biological Technician, David Hawksworth, assisted.
Releasing the Natives field day, where 102 elementary school students from the Albuquerque region released the Rio Grande cutthroat trout into the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River. Local U.S. Fish and Wildlife office oversaw the release, and Yancey set up Bug World at the release site. He secured supplies and transportation funds from the National Park Service’s Every Kid in a Park program.
Nine young adults from the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy worked on a Youth Conservation Crew for an intensive 10-week program. They constructed trails, restored habitat, and implemented erosion control and some general park beautification projects. U.S. Forest Service Southwest Regional staff mentored and offered shadow days to meet with interested crew members and answer their questions regarding forest research and careers.
The RMRS Grasslands, Shrubs and Deserts Lab, Albuquerque Sign Language Academy, and the Middle Rio Grande Youth Consortium E3 teamed up and leveraged $15,000 in Youth Conservation Corps funds. They were able to meet the work crew’s special requirements. Thank you to Josh Hanna who served as the certified interpreter and crew leader. The crew worked hard and reported positive experiences in the forests, and some reported that this was their first job where they were able to fully communicate with supervisors and coworkers.
Fire ecology students from the University of Idaho and the University of Montana recently completed daylong field trips at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory (FSL). Lab staff organized the day to introduce students to fire science research. Fire, Fuel, and Smoke Program Manager Colin Hardy and Deputy Program Manager Thomas Dzomba briefed the groups on the organization of RMRS and the FSL history. Students then heard presentations from several FSL scientists on current fire research. Research Forester Mark Finney and his team demonstrated and explained an experimental burn and a fire whorl simulation in the burn chamber, and Forester Jim Reardon conducted a soil heating experiment.
Hiking after dark provides a uniquely different experience from daytime; fragrances are stronger, different animals are active, and different plants are flowering. It’s one way to excite participants’ curiosity about, and appreciation for, wilderness – and it can also feed their interest in biological field research. On two evenings in summer of 2016, a Fort Collins Girl Scout troop and a group of elementary school kids and parents explored night hiking. They learned wildlife sounds and signs, discovered the importance of scent for plant identification, and investigated trees infected by bark beetles.
Most of the kids had never hiked in the dark, and they were impressed by the adaptability of wildlife, especially wildlife niche partitioning between daytime and nighttime. Sarah Flick of the Rocky Mountain Research Station ran the program, assisted by Cynthia Melcher and Laura Ellison, wildlife biologists at USGS (Ellison is emeritus), and by Vern Kohler, Minerals and Lands Officer at the Pawnee National Grassland. Judy Viola from Soaring Eagle Ecology Center, and Tammra Johnson from Liberty Common School Girl Scout Troop 3123 of Fort Collins, were partners in the events.