Grant awards fund new conservation science initiatives

John Volin and Tom Worthley
John Volin (right) and Tom Worthley (center), an assistant extension professor, with NRCA group in the UConn Forest.

Projects stemming from the Natural Resources Conservation Academy (NRCA) were recently awarded over $3 million in grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The funds will be used to initiate two research projects that will expand the scope and reach of the academy’s conservation science initiatives into communities and schools across Connecticut. The NRCA and the new projects are interdisciplinary collaborations and housed within the College’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE) and Department of Extension.

NSF’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program recently awarded a nearly $3 million grant entitled: “Promoting Lifelong STEM Learning Through a Focus on Conservation, Geospatial Technology, and Community Engagement” to John Volin, professor and Head of NRE, and colleagues in NRE, Center for Land Use and Research, extension and the Neag School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction (EDCI). The program seeks to educate adult learners and high school students across the state in the use of geospatial technology in conservation science with an emphasis on applications for land use. Participants will be familiarized with geospatial technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and remote sensing (images captured by satellites or aircraft) and taught how these tools can be used to support conservation practices and community planning. The AISL program advances the development and implementation of opportunities that bring STEM learning into informal environments to promote education, research and engagement with the public.

A USDA grant of nearly $150K was awarded to Chet Arnold of UConn Extension and CLEAR, again with colleagues in NRE, CLEAR, EDCI and the Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering (CESE) to fund a science education project entitled: “Water and Sustainability: Educative Curriculum Using Online Mapping Tools to Support Teacher and Student Learning.” The project supports professional development workshops to help high school teachers incorporate conservation science and geospatial technology into their curricula using the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Teaching modules highlighting topics of sustainability, land use and water resources will be created that can then be tailored by instructors to educate students about concerns relevant to their communities. Water management will be a critical focus, addressing sea level rise, storm surges, drought conditions, drainage systems, freshwater ecosystems and green infrastructure.

These new research projects are interdisciplinary partnerships across the university and represent an expansion of the conservation teaching and community outreach established through NRCA, founded by Volin in 2011. In the NRCA, each summer for one week twenty-four high school students from diverse communities across the state engage in classroom learning and field work centered on the environment, natural resources and geospatial technology at UConn and conduct a ten-month individual conservation-related project within their own community.

“The whole idea of the NRCA is to reconnect high school students with nature because with technology such as social media and video games there’s a tendency for them to be detached from their environment. The NRCA helps to cultivate a greater understanding of the natural world, and at the same time, encourages these students to be a part of their communities,” says Volin.

During the intensive week-long field experience over the summer at the Storrs campus, NRCA students learn about a range of topics, including forestry, freshwater systems, green infrastructure, and fish and wildlife conservation. Afterwards, with the assistance of a mentor, they apply their knowledge to service learning projects designed to help their local communities. The advisors bring a wealth of experience from varied backgrounds. Academics, municipal administrators, government employees and environmental professionals participate in the NRCA to guide students. Upon completion of their individual conservation projects, the students share their work in a poster presentation at the annual Connecticut Conference on Natural Resources and graduate as Connecticut Conservation Ambassadors. The program hopes to inspire future scientists and conservationists as the students become ambassadors in their communities.

Volin is enthusiastic about the level of commitment of the NRCA students. “Last year all the NRCA students completed the summer field experience and their ten-month conservation projects, and they all returned in March to present their work at the conference. I think that speaks to the quality of the program, which is coordinated by Dr. Laura Cisneros, and also to the importance of the bonds being formed,” says Volin. Over one hundred conservation projects have been completed by students so far across the state since the NRCA began.

The new projects funded by NSF and USDA developed from the success of the NRCA. The motivation to create the STEM project came from Volin’s observations in the NRCA, where he noticed the learning taking place as the adult mentors and younger students worked together.

“There are a number of interactions happening. We have ten UConn faculty members, four Natural Resources Conservation Service environmental scientists, a number of graduate and undergraduate students and dozens of community partners working with these students. From a conservation standpoint and in the approach to technology, it became clear that the adult volunteers and adolescent students were learning from and teaching one another. My colleagues and I thought this would be a fascinating way to look at STEM knowledge, skills and application – across generations and in the context of conservation science. Chet [Arnold] and I brought this to our colleagues in Neag, [Associate Professors] Todd Campbell and David Moss, and we started planning out how to explore this further. By receiving the NSF funding we’re now able to embark on this exciting new project and are able to investigate intergenerational learning,” says Volin.

“Through the five years of the NRCA we have been able to work with about seventy-five community partners. Now, with the new NSF-funded project we hope to expand that number, as well as increase the number of students we can reach. By bringing lifelong learners, both adolescents and adults, together to help their communities, we hope to make a real difference at the local level while also having a great opportunity to study intergenerational learning with our colleagues in Neag,” says Volin.

The STEM project will consist of two to four workshops across the state every year for the next five years. Each workshop will educate about twenty-five participants. With geospatial training and education of conservation practices, graduates of the project can immediately utilize tools and skills to begin actively helping their communities solve problems through data collection and researched assessments. The workshops will take place in areas where STEM education is often limited, focusing on inner cities and rural areas. There will be six or seven faculty members from different disciplines involved in running the workshops.

Arnold believes that the USDA grant will also further expand the impact of the NRCA, making new connections with the teaching community and reaching additional students through their classwork at school. Team members from CLEAR, NRE and CESE will conduct the project, which will provide professional development that focuses on sustainable water resources as the unifying theme but once again concentrates on the applications of geospatial technology. Campell and Moss from Neag will assure that the curriculum aligns with the NGSS the state adopted last year.

“We’ll work with the teachers on how to use existing online geospatial tools developed by CLEAR and others to explore their own local water resources and develop classroom modules that connect those local resources to global issues,” says Arnold. “Adding the teacher piece kind of completes the overall NRCA picture, and we’re excited to be able to launch this new effort with the NSF workshops.”

Laura Cisneros, a visiting assistant professor and coordinator of the NRCA, will help organize the NSF and USDA projects. Joining Arnold will be other extension faculty from CLEAR, including Cary Chadwick, Emily Wilson and David Dickson, all part of the CLEAR Geospatial Team. Michael Willig, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Director of CESE will contribute to the USDA project. Todd Campbell and David Moss will be studying intergenerational learning in the workshops.

“What’s most exciting about these new projects is that over a hundred teens, adults and educators each year will gain tools and forge partnerships to carry out fun, impactful conservation projects statewide,” says Cisneros. “We are all very excited to expand our efforts of the NRCA to reach a broader, more diverse cohort of citizens, and gain further insight on the importance of intergenerational learning on environmental education and on-the-ground conservation and management efforts.”

By Jason M. Sheldon