NRCA students survey insect biodiversity in the UConn Forest during a night field activity.

NRCA students survey insect biodiversity in the UConn Forest during a night field activity.

Listening to the daily news, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed or helpless when hearing how communities throughout the world, including our own, are facing serious environmental issues such as pollution, degradation of natural resources and more frequent and intense droughts, forest fires and floods. Although federal- and state-level action is essential, it is not enough. These environmental issues are societal concerns, and effective solutions depend on having environmentally conscious and scientifically informed citizens.

The United States has seen a decline in the number of students who do well in science. Unsatisfactory performance in science can be linked to students doubting their ability to “do” science, and there is often a disconnect between science curriculum and real-world applications.

NRCA students learn to use GIS--and a compass.

NRCA students learn to use GIS–and a compass.

In response to this, the Natural Resources Conservation Academy (NRCA) was created in 2012 based on the premise that connecting teens with nature while simultaneously integrating cutting-edge technology with the hands-on study of local environments engages young learners in new and exciting ways, advancing scientific literacy and critical thinking (see nrca.uconn.edu). NRCA, housed in UConn’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, is an innovative program in conservation and land use planning that engages Connecticut high school students in a wide range of topics related to natural resources and the environment, including units on water, forestry, soil, fish and wildlife, landscape ecology, and habitat protection. Students  participate in classroom and field activities during a week-long field experience at UConn’s Storrs Campus. Upon completing the field experience, each student works on a seven-month conservation project in his or her community. Since the summer 2015 field experience, NRCA students have been working on a variety of conservation projects, including installations of green infrastructure, development of monitoring protocols for important amphibian habitat and restoration of waterways.

NRCA students use radiotelemetry to track animal movements.

NRCA students use radiotelemetry to track animal movements.

NRCA students are excited and motivated when to participate in the  seven-month program. As a junior from Two Rivers Magnet School in Hartford said, “Now that I have all these tools and I know how to do it, I have this fire in my heart … I really want to do this.” Her project focuses on the inventory of aquatic insects in Gully Brook—an important waterway embedded within Hartford’s urban neighborhoods—to help guide restoration of the area.

The Two Rivers student went on to say, “At first, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I wanted to learn something with the environment. As the days progress, [I thought], this isn’t as hard as I thought it was, I think I can do this. And as the days went on more, [I thought] oh my goodness I love this. I am learning this, I know I can do it, and I want to do it. Give me more. And as the days go on, I can do this, I know how to do this, and I’m going to do this as soon as I leave.” This is a typical response from high school students in the program; at first they are often intimidated by coming to a university program, but they quickly realize that they can be an active participant in developing and working toward environmental solutions in their own community and beyond.

Students from the 2014 NRCA present their work at the 2015 Connecticut Conference on Natural Resources.

Students from the 2014 NRCA present their work at the 2015 Connecticut Conference on Natural Resources.

On Monday, March 14, 2016, NRCA students presented their work at the annual Connecticut Conference on Natural Resources, after which they graduated as Connecticut Conservation Ambassadors.

The NRCA is made possible entirely through private giving. To help NRCA continue providing individualized environmental education and expand into new communities in Connecticut and nearby states, the NRCA has launched a crowdfunding campaign. To make a gift, go to the campaign site at http://s.uconn.edu/givenrca.

By Laura Cisneros