The typical summer of a high school student might be spent working an hourly job, getting a tan, or simply enjoying the time off with friends. Although they were having fun in the sun, the students at the Natural Resources Conservation Academy were experiencing anything but the typical summer.
First held in July 2012, the Natural Resources Conservation Academy is a week-long program that takes place on the Storrs campus. The second annual academy was held July 7-13, 2013. High school students from across the state applied and were accepted to participate in a serious of educational outdoor activities coupled with in-class instruction. The focus of the program is on environmental awareness; this year additional emphasis was placed on the urban environment. “One thing that has changed this year is that we’re working more with low-impact development and green infrastructure with CLEAR,” says Charlotte Rand, the program coordinator. “It works well with kids from urban areas, because that’s a really big issue there.”
Rand has also worked to develop a diverse group. Last year, she made a map of where all of the students were from, and it was clear that they were missing a key demographic: students from inner-city environments. “Those are the kids that are the most important to reach, and also the hardest to reach—but when you do reach them, it’s such a ticket.”
Although some things have changed, the main message of the program remains the same. John Volin, head of the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and creator of the program, wants kids to have a better understanding of and appreciation for nature. “A lot of students have had large experiences in the woods and outside, others haven’t. I just want people to get a greater understanding of the environment and the importance of the environment in our lives.”
It works. The students enjoy the wide range of subjects covered during the week, both in and out of the classroom. Comments from students include “I think the hands on aspect makes it much easier to learn. Instead of ‘here’s a mayfly’ you have to catch one; “I really didn’t know what to expect but everyone was so kind and helpful. I really loved this week;” and “I’d like to start a class/program to get kids into the forest and show them the more exiting and interesting aspects of environmental science, like the NRCA has done for me.”
Rand believes programs like the NRCA are the best way to connect with students. “This is how we need to engage kids in science—not necessarily lecturing them, but getting them to identify themselves as being scientists, letting them fill that role, and giving them the confidence to play that role—especially for kids who have never imagined themselves as a scientist.”