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How do you make sure our national parks are welcoming to everybody?

Today’s interview is with Elise Dillingham, Wildlife Ecologist and DRLC Program Coordinator for the Sonoran Desert Network and Desert Research Learning Center. Elise was interviewed by Sehdia Mansaray.

 

How do you make sure our national parks are welcoming to everybody?

At Tucson’s Desert Research Learning Center (DRLC), the National Park Service is working to ensure that environmental education is accessible to everyone.

Cienega High School students made adobe bricks and are building a mini horno oven.

There are more than 61 million people with disabilities living in the US. For many of them, national parks can be difficult to experience. Some parks offer few opportunities for people in wheelchairs to explore areas beyond the frontcountry. At others, it’s difficult for people with disabilities to find information about what kinds of opportunities are available to them once they get there. For people to care about national parks, they need to feel like they belong in them. Through educational programs and citizen-science opportunities, Elise Dillingham and the DRLC staff are helping to make that happen.

Elise Dillingham helping students weave agave fibers to make bracelets.

Located adjacent to Saguaro National Park, the Desert Research Learning Center is an ideal space for connecting people, resources, and science. The center provides space and support for visiting researchers and interns, hosts hands-on experiential learning for local student groups, and displays examples of sustainable practices and native horticulture. Its mission is to promote the scientific understanding, protection, and conservation of Sonoran Desert national parks.

The DRLC has ongoing partnerships with several local schools. When the center’s coordinator, Elise Dillingham, learned from teachers at Cienega High School that students in special education programs often have limited field-trip opportunities, she wanted to make sure the DRLC was one of them.

This challenged Elise and her staff to see their programming through a different lens. They made changes to many of their standard activities, so people with a variety of differing abilities could participate. Field projects were brought closer to the DRLC. A lingering plan to build wheelchair ramps to an artificial stream was completed. Classroom activities were modified to make them more tactile and accessible to students with different learning styles.

Cienega High School students learning how to harvest fibers by pounding agave leaves.

With no formal training on how to work with people with disabilities, the DRLC staff also learned to adapt to the various ways students engaged—or didn’t engage—with the activities. Sometimes, students needed to leave in the middle of a program, had outbursts, or participated with headphones on. With the help of the students’ regular teachers, Elise and her staff came to understand these as new behaviors to learn to work with—not signs of disrespect.

Their efforts have paid off. A group of students from Cienega High School now visits the DRLC for a variety of programs several times each semester. Students are becoming more engaged and getting the opportunity to learn about and visit national parks, just as their peers without disabilities do. For a few students, their first trip to DRLC was their first time on a field trip.

Elise shares the story of one young man who started in the program as a freshman and initially sat through DRLC programs with his headphones on and was not interested in volunteering to help with activities. Over time, he became more comfortable with the programs and eventually was the first to volunteer to complete tasks, such as setting up remote wildlife cameras. By the time he was a senior, he said he was sad to graduate because he wouldn’t be able to participate in the DRLC’s programs anymore.

Cienega High School student picked rainbow Swiss chard from the DRLC’s heritage food garden.

The improved programming at the DRLC is just one example of the National Park Service’s recent efforts to make parks in Arizona more inclusive. In collaboration with Special Olympics Arizona, several parks have created the Unified Hiking program, which provides opportunities for Southern Arizona athletes and supporters to maintain healthy, active lifestyles. The kickoff hike was in Flagstaff, but more hikes are being planned in Tucson and Phoenix. Finding wheelchair accessible trails has been a challenge for these events, but they plan to keep up their efforts. The park service has also published a plan for improving accessibility across the system. And US citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities can apply for a National Park Service Access Pass, which provides free admittance to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by five Federal agencies—for life.

For its part, the DRLC plans to continue to improve programming and expand opportunities for students with disabilities. Elise would also like to get formal training that would help her and her staff to better serve these students. She encourages anyone looking to engage with diverse student groups to talk with local teachers to learn about their community’s needs and ways to assist.

 

Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace

Today’s conversation is with Kendall Kroesen,  Community Outreach Coordinator at Mission Garden.  Kendall was interviewed by Lorianne Barnett, May 14, 2020.  This blog was compiled by Jan Schwartz.

Do you ever wonder how people lived in this difficult desert environment long ago? What kinds of food did they grow and how did they grow it as the landscape changed?

Mission Garden is a re-creation of a Spanish Colonial walled garden, developed by the non-profit organization that manages it: Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace. Located in Tucson, AZ, it is a living agricultural museum that interprets over 4,000 years of Tucson’s history through heritage fruit-trees, traditional local heirloom crops, and edible native plants. This beautiful, lush garden sits at the base of Sentinel Peak, AKA “A Mountain.” Because of the dark, volcanic rock on the hill, the Native American village that once sat at the base of this hill was known as S-cuk Son (Base of Black). This is the origin of today’s name, Tucson.  Many Tohono O’odham still refer to the city as S-cuk Son.

60-day corn with “the hill” in the background

By growing and harvesting these heritage crops and sharing this historical knowledge with the public, Mission Garden helped Tucson become the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in December 2015. It is part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network which has several fields, including Gastronomy. According to the UNESCO website, “Located in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson has the longest agricultural history of any city in the United States of America. It has a 300-year tradition of vineyards, orchards, and livestock ranching that have forged the wide array of the local heritage foods, a source of identity and vitality for the local population of 1 million inhabitants. The distinctive cuisine of Tucson developed from a culturally layered history, a variety of heritage food ingredients, and a continuity of traditional food preparation techniques.” https://en.unesco.org/creative-cities/tucson

The Mission Garden website includes a short timeline of the garden since its inception. Following the initial planting of the Spanish Colonial Heritage Fruit Tree Orchard in February and March 2012, Mission Garden expanded to interpret the timeline of our remarkable agricultural story.  Specific gardens illustrate that timeline starting with the Early Agricultural period and continuing with Hohokam, Pre-contact and Post-contact O’odham, Spanish, Mexican, Territorial and Statehood Chinese, Yaqui, Anglo and African American farming, and ending with Tomorrow’s Garden.  Tomorrow’s Garden combines ancient knowledge with modern experimental solutions for today’s challenges.

Garden harvest

Mission Garden continuously works to increase the involvement of the Indigenous communities within Pima County. The Garden tells the long and complex history of the area going back to the Indigenous peoples of more than 4,000 years.  The two annual Native American Arts Fairs have been successful in attracting participation from several tribes.  The artists work in a variety of media from baskets to jewelry to painting.

Kendall Kroesen, Community Outreach Coordinator, emphasizes the importance of building relationships.  Kroesen reaches out to Indigenous people to create more diversity in volunteers, board members, and visitors.  Unfortunately, the global pandemic has made it difficult to find the space to continue to cultivate those relationships. Fortunately, Mission Garden now has a University of Arizona graduate student intern from The Coverdell Fellows Program to help move the work forward. The garden is also recruiting an AmeriCorps employee.  In addition, Mission Garden looks to the community and to other organizations to help build the relationships needed to be a fully inclusive organization. To date, FOTB has partnered with over 50 other community organizations.

San Ysidro Festival 2020

Mission Garden has a number of festivals throughout the year which bring in multicultural audiences.   The Agave Festival celebrates agave as a food, a fiber and, of course, tequila.  This festival is a part of the larger city celebration of the agave plant and involves native communities.  Additional festivals such as the Membrillo (quince) Festival and the Festival of San Ysidro, the largest festival, occur yearly.  Garden board members with connections and relationships within their communities make these and other festivals possible.  The Garden also has a strong relationship with the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, which is reflected in the Chinese heritage garden.

If we could experience history through taste and smell, how might we look differently at our local food sources? Would we be more likely to try unfamiliar foods?

For more information on the edible gardens of the Mission Garden please visit their website at https://www.missiongarden.org/

and visit the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage at https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/preserving-historical-edible-landscapes-arizona

 

Community Science in Conservation

by Annia Quiroz of Central Arizona Conservation Alliance

What is public participation in scientific research (PPSR)? PPSR is more commonly known as community science aka citizen science. These are initiatives where the public is involved in one or more phases of scientific research from defining questions to using results. A few years ago organizations began recognizing the limitations of the word “citizen”. The word citizen in citizen science was originally intended to distinguish amateur data collectors from professional scientists, not to describe the citizenship status of the volunteers. No matter where a volunteer was born their contribution to science and conservation programs is valued. 

Not only this, but the term community science also means we must expand how we think about the process of community science. It involves local knowledge, collective action and empowerment. By creating an even more collaborative process, bringing in the community scientists to participate in the decision making, communities are drawing closer to better conservation and livelihood outcomes, that are in synergy with local ecosystem-based management trends.

One common question asked by participating volunteers is, “what are the impacts out work has and how is the data collected used”? This is a great question.

Community science can have many uses and impacts. Some examples are: 

  1. Development of plans (ie. safety, management, restoration)
  2. Community resiliency and preparedness
  3. Policy
  4. Floristic inventories and herbarium collections
  5. Further research and research questions
  6. Community scientists as ambassadors!

It needs to be said that this isn’t an all-inclusive list and one we are still learning about. Touching on number 6, community science is critically important as the need for community input in scientific processes and policy development are ever more clear. While the contribution of data for specific projects is very valuable to scientific research, we cannot understate the importance of the community scientists themselves. 

Not only do they gathering data and participate in the scientific process but, through this participation, their passion and experiences they become ambassadors and champions of the work. They play a critical role in sharing important messages of conservation, or whatever the project entails. 

There are many different ways to get involved in community science projects. For example, two initiatives the Central Arizona Conservation Alliance is helping lead:

  1. The Metro Phoenix EcoFlora project

The EcoFlora project is a community science project using iNaturalist to learn more about the biodiversity of Metro Phoenix. Urban ecosystems are understudied, and plants are especially overlooked. Every month you can also join a new EcoQuest; hide-and-seek games for urban biodiversity, seeking certain plants or plant interactions. Their results provide information for research, such as pollinator counts, invasive species mapping, or wildlife habitat.

  1. Desert Defenders  

Desert Defenders is a community science program focused on finding, mapping and removing invasive species at local parks, preserves and natural areas. Invasive species are one of the biggest threats to healthy ecosystems. The data collected through the tireless work of our Defenders is crucial for park staff and land managers to protect the desert parks we all love.

More community science links:

https://cazca.org/project/desert-defenders/

https://cazca.org/project/metro-phoenix-ecoflora/

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1462901119300942

https://gsmit.org/why-we-are-changing-citizen-science-to-community-science/

Outdoor Classrooms as Plan A for Reopening Schools

Outdoor Classrooms as Plan A for Reopening Schools

As states, districts, principals, teachers, and parents are trying to decide if, and when, students should return to school, here is something to consider: What if Outdoor Classrooms were Plan A for reopening schools?

Using the outdoors can provide a cost effective way to assist with social distancing and increase school capacity. Having students utilize outdoor classrooms for at least part of the day has many benefits. It provides a place for social learning and collaboration; fresh air; hands-on learning opportunities; and therapeutic quiet, reflective spaces. The air quality is generally better outside than inside and some studies have shown that “environmental conditions, such as wind and sunlight, may reduce the amount of virus present on a surface and the length of time the virus can stay viable.”(Green Schoolyards)

Opening schools by utilizing the outdoors can also be a way to address the issues of equity; academic and social learning; and mental, physical, and emotional health.

Green Schoolyards, in collaboration with the Lawrence Hall of Science, Ten Strands, and San Mateo County Office of Education’s Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Initiative, are working on a plan to assist schools with reopening by using the outdoors as a way to provide a safer, more engaging, Plan A.

Green Schoolyards is developing resources to assist schools with the logistics of outdoor classrooms. They have downloadable resources such free schoolyard activity guides including:

The Green Schoolyards website also includes case studies of model programs and a section with multiple news articles related to outdoor learning.

Guides for national and state guidance and policies for COVID-19 planning considerations for reopening schools can be found at https://www.greenschoolyards.org/covid-19-guidance It includes guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Center for Disease Control and Prevention; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; American Camp Association; North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE); California Department of Education; California Department of Public Health; and the Florida Department of Education.

 

Okay, so we know that getting kids outdoors can be a good thing, but how should schools design their landscape to encourage outdoor learning? Green Schoolyards has launched a new, pro bono landscape design assistance program that partners schools with volunteer designers to assist with the process.

 

 

Green Schoolyards also has downloadable tools and resources including Outdoor Infrastructure Planning Overview, Outdoor Classroom Configuration Options, and Outdoor Infrastructure Cost Estimate Tool. https://www.greenschoolyards.org/outdoor-infrastructure

Do you want to get involved with helping to shape the national initiative of Outdoor Classrooms? Green Schoolyards has convened working groups to do just that. The working groups will collaborate to write chapters of what will be a comprehensive, online resource book that will be available as a free download once it is completed.

They welcome teachers, administrators, parents, engineers, companies, non-profit organizations, informal educators, and others to join the initiative by participating in one or more of the working groups. The working groups include the following:

  1. Plans to ensure equity
  2. Outdoor classroom infrastructure
  3. Park/school collaboration
  4. Outdoor learning & instructional models
  5. Staffing & formal/nonformal partnerships
  6. School program integration (with PE, recess, before/after care)
  7. Community engagement
  8. Health & safety considerations
  9. Local & state policy shifts
  10. Funding & economic models
  11. Community of practice for Early Adopters

Get involved and help shape the Outdoor Classroom initiative! More information about the working groups can be found at: https://www.greenschoolyards.org/working-groups

Let’s work together to create healthy learning environments!

Arizon-Wha?!

ARIZON-WHA?! 

We’re starting a new column! Stay tuned for funky new mystery species with every newsletter.

Can you identify this ferocious-looking critter? 

Clue: They are found underground around Arizona in early September. 

Take a guess, then scroll to the bottom of this newsletter for the answer! (or however you want to do it)

Photo by Jessie Rack

Answer to this issue’s ARIZON-WHA?! Photo challenge:

If you guessed beetle grub, congratulations! Since it’s a white grub, we can identify this big chunk as belonging to the scarab beetle family, Scarabaeidae. Due to its size and the location where it was found, it’s pretty likely that this one is a baby Western Hercules Beetle, Dynastes grantii. Larvae of this species can spend 2-3 years as a crazy-looking underground monster like our friend up above, but once they’ve developed into adults they only live for 2-4 months. As grubs, they eat decaying plant material (that makes them decomposers, y’all!) but as adults they feed on tree sap by making a small wound in the tree (this doesn’t hurt the tree). I’ll give you a dollar if you eat it. 

Have you seen weird nature stuff around Arizona? Submit your photos to membership@arizonaee.org for the chance to have them published in a future edition of ARIZON-WHA?!

 

Jessie Rack is a Board Member at AAEE. She received her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut in the spring of 2016. She is currently the Program Coordinator of the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities (SEEC) Program, an offshoot of the Community and School Garden Program at the University of Arizona.

Urban School Gardens: A Nature Niche

by Jessie Rack

The world’s intrinsic beauty and complexity is a never-ending source of inspiration for educators. And we’ve all seen the results of being outside on our students, no matter what age — immersion in nature invites focus, observation, and simple noticing. Students with behavior or attention issues are sometimes stabilized in an outdoor environment. The smallest insect or rock becomes a fascination, and questions bloom without effort. 

As environmental educators, we don’t need to be told about the benefits of taking our students outside. In the last two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of studies on outdoor education, with authors citing results like better grades, higher test scores, and improvements in focusing attention and regulating behavior. But for those of us who, like more than 80% of the US population live in urban areas, helping our students reap the benefits of the outdoors is sometimes more complicated than simply taking them outside of the school. So how do we give urban children the experience and benefits of playing and learning outside? One way to do it is through school gardens. 

This approach works because school gardens occupy something of an in-between space: they are not quite the structured, rule-bound, indoor world of the classroom, and yet also not the unstructured freedom of the open desert, or the forest, or even the playground. And yet they encompass aspects of all of those spaces. Gardens are a place in which collaboration and communication happen naturally, in which rules are still followed, but in which students can learn from experience and from others, and can literally get their hands dirty, while their teachers can still achieve their curricular objectives and meet state and national standards.

There has also been a lot of research about the benefits of school gardens specifically – it’s been something of a hot topic for the past couple of decades. Research is ongoing, but it seems that school gardens can affect students in a variety of ways. These range from the most obvious areas of healthy eating, nutrition, and science to more subtle impacts such as positive social and emotional skills, group collaboration, and even increased environmental stewardship. 

With all of this in mind, stay tuned for a series of AAEE newsletter articles about school gardens. In future editions, I will be sharing some tips for starting and maintaining school gardens, and for using these gardens to fill the nature niche that many urban schools lack. My position, with the University of Arizona’s Community and School Garden Program, is unique; I run the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities Program, in which I work directly with students at Title I schools, providing weekly environmental education lessons to students at these low-resource urban schools in Tucson. I also work with my colleagues to install school gardens at schools around Tucson and to help train teachers to take care of the gardens and to use gardens in their curricula, using the gardens and outdoor spaces at the schools as living laboratories to get students outside and immersed in nature. No matter the age group or ability level, school gardens are an effective tool for engaging students, for improving focus and achievement, and for getting kids excited about their environment. And, of course, for getting a little dirty.

 

Jessie is a Board Member at AAEE. She received her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut in the spring of 2016. She is currently the Program Coordinator of the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities (SEEC) Program, an offshoot of the Community and School Garden Program at the University of Arizona.

Licensing Outdoor Preschool?

By Diona Williams, M.Ed. ECSE

The state of Washington is the first pilot in the United States that aims to finally license outdoor, nature-based, and forest preschools. This is in reference to schools that spend the majority of their days outside the four walls, exploring natural spaces, regardless of the weather. You can see all the outdoor, nature, and forest-based schools in the United States on the Natural Start Alliance‘s website; they are the Early Childhood Environmental Education program of our partner organizations, NAAEE.


Currently in the United States, there are no licensing systems in place for outdoor preschools as much of the licensing process is build around the school’s physical building. Washington is leading the way in confronting this issue, because without licensing, outdoor preschools face huge barriers for making their program accessible to everyone. Just like a regular preschool licensing system, Washington’s licensing pilot program has a set of standards that the schools will all have to meet. Why might this Washington experiment be important to us down here in Arizona?

Here’s an example from my life: As an owner/lead educator of a nature preschool in Arizona, this pilot program is ground breaking for our state. Our licensing systems have many rules that simply don’t align with foundational practices in outdoor and garden-based learning. Imagine you are a teacher in the state of Arizona. You start a school garden and want to grow tomatoes because they do so well in the sun here. Unfortunately, in our current system, this plant is categorized as poisonous so licensed facilities cannot have them in a children’s garden. This happened to me, and this is the reality of licensed programs throughout the state of Arizona. Many preschool teachers express frustration at the limited vegetation their programs can grow in their school gardens or have in the green spaces their program goes to.

So, how does the state of Arizona move forward? Of course, my initial thought it’s time to start our own pilot program. I think this starts with reviewing and surveying the specific gardening and outdoor time limitations for licensed programs such as child care centers, in-home providers, Head Starts, and public schools currently experience. After we review the findings, we’ll be able to write our own set of standards that makes sense for our schools and our climate. Then, we can move towards policy discussions by educating stakeholders on the importance of spending time in nature and gardening and how the current rules limit licensed facilities from providing the outdoor time & gardening opportunities that children deserve.

If you’re interested in joining our Early Childhood Environmental Education working group that is beginning to explore the options of increasing nature-based and outdoor early learning in Arizona, let us know!

Contact Diona Williams at outbacklearning2019@gmail.com for more information.

The Nature Camp Solution – Why, How, and WOW!

 

Author: Dr. Mariana Altrichter – Photographer: Peter Sherman

As an environmentalist and conservation biologist, I have been growing aware of the lack of interest among the adult population to make daily choices based on the welfare of environment. People seem to know about our pressing environmental issues, but do not translate this knowledge into behavior change. At the same time, as a mother of two young girls, I became more educated of the pervasive effects of screens and the importance of outdoor play for the overall health of children.

I realized that my girls had few opportunities to play outdoors with other kids. In our daily family excursions outdoors, I was surprised by the absence of young teens walking in the woods, biking on mountain trails, kayaking, or playing in the rocks (things that I definitely did when I was that age!). Where are they? I wondered… 

I decided to start a nature-based environmental education program in Prescott to inspire love for our natural world, love for outdoor adventures, and love for biodiversity. If these kids have fun in the woods now, I thought, in a few years from now they will be the teenagers enjoying the woods that I don’t see now; and my daughters will have a community of nature-loving friends.

Nature Camp: “All Children in the Woods” started in October 2014.  My underlying principles that permeate all activities we do in camp are respect and care for nature and each other, cooperation instead of competition, and nature is amazing. I design daily schedules based on a theme (i.e. “trees” or “monsoons” etc.) and follow a loose routine where I mix play, exploration, art, creativity, group games, songs, building, quiet solo time, journaling, and free time. I often bring a book related to the theme to read during quiet time.

 

 

We start with an opening circle where we greet each other and the woods, sing, and play big group games. Then we separate in two age groups: Bobcats 5-7 yrs old and Cougars 8-10 yrs old (although the 7 and 8 yr old kids can choose what group to join). Each group has one or two instructors, called at our camp, “coyotes”.

Each camper creates a special spot which they can decorate, build, and make personal in any way they want. I reduce the number of unnatural things I bring to camp to a minimum: shovels and buckets, toilet paper, bandannas and sometimes a rope. All other activities use only nature. We sit on the ground, eat our lunch on the ground or up in trees, go potty in the woods, play with dirt, pine needles, rocks. Thus, we spend 7 hours in the forest without hearing or seeing human infrastructure other than what we build ourselves.

The “learning” at camp often occurs organically, rather than directed, embedded in everything else. Although I create a schedule by the minute with detailed activities, I tell my “coyotes” that we have to be open to improvise or completely change course based on the children’s lead.

This is the advantage of not being tied to a curricula, or meeting standards. Just keeping the underlying principles, with basic “no hurting feelings, bodies, or nature” rules, the kids have plenty of space, time, and freedom to be creative, imaginative, and playful.

Indeed, often the most amazing, creative, and fun activities have come up spontaneously from the kids (not my detailed program!).  For example, while I was reading a book about settlers developing a town next to a river and polluting it in the process, one of the kids was fidgeting with the dirt and moving sticks and pebbles around. Although I was a little annoyed that he was “distracting the group away from my reading” I allowed him to continue and by the end of the book he said, “Look, I am building here a settlement where people and nature live together. Do you want to help me?”.

This became the most epic group building cooperative project ever! The whole day they built homes, created miniature forest among the houses, made lakes and rivers, built a “community center,” all while talking, negotiating, deciding as a group, cooperating. I was at the verge of tears the whole time, feeling, “This is it; this is magical!”

Since I started this program, we have had about 190 days in the forest and about 300 children have participated. Several of the older kids who “graduated” from camp have been coming back as helpers. They help the younger group and provide excellent role models as respectful, caring and outdoors-loving preteens.

As a college educator, I also recognize the importance of hands-on experiential education for students. Thus, I opened this camp to Prescott College students who want to participate in any way: as an independent study, for a senior projects, for a course assignments, or just for gaining experience. Many classes have done field trips with their students to visit Nature Camp. All my instructors are or were college students who became interested in working at my camp after being introduced to it in one way or another. Some of them are now elementary or college teachers, bringing to their jobs the conviction of the importance of nature-based environmental education.

To learn more about Nature Camp: All Children in the Woods or to reach Dr. Altrichter, check out Educational Expeditions’ Facebook page — Observation, internship, and volunteer opportunities are always available!