As we finish off the year and say goodbye to another amazing group of educators, The Parks Foundation would like to take some time to honor these 13 individuals and the impact they’ve made on the children in our community. This year presented a unique set of challenges, to say the least. We are incredibly grateful for the group we had and their ability to adapt to these changes and continue putting students first.
Due to the impact of COVID-19 on the school year, these AmeriCorps Naturalist Educators had to think outside the box as far as restructuring their programs. They jumped into the world of virtual and distance education with ease and creativity by producing learning packets, scavenger hunt activities, and educational videos. They also put together a successful Science Summer Camp that ensured that student health and safety were kept at the forefront of the program’s values. We’d like to thank these amazing mentors and teachers for the care they’ve shown our students and dedicate this week’s blog post to them. Read on as they reflect on their accomplishments, favorite memories, and what it means to be an educator in this day and age.
*Aleigh (left) and Hannah (right) conduct a lesson during summer camp
1. What is the most rewarding part of being a naturalist educator/ part of the Student Stewards Program?
Devin Genovese, Student Stewards Program Director: The most rewarding part of SSP for me is seeing the direct impact we have on the students' lives. Working with the most underserved students of Washoe County, we're able to offer an opportunity that very few of these students would otherwise receive. And when you see a child go from struggling in the classroom to excelling in an outdoor setting, it affirms that the education you are providing is impactful and worthwhile.
*Devin shows off his summer style at camp
Jaime Gonzalez-Canon, AmeriCorps Naturalist Educator: The most rewarding part of being a Naturalist Educator for the Student Stewards Program is educating about the stewardship of nature and science to the community. This unique system lets the educators not only enjoy nature, rather more importantly, it lets the students create understanding and connections between science and nature. Similarly, it is rewarding to feel the camaraderie of the team in how we are able to lead every lesson successfully, despite COVID-19.
2. What role does S.T.E.M. education play in your lives and the lives of your students outside of the classroom?
Kayla Sherman, AmeriCorps Naturalist Educator: I love when kids ask, “Why is this lesson important," or "How does this relate to the real world?” I always say you might not experience this specific activity again but the learning process is important. Problem solving is an important skill to have and being able to solve different kinds of problems is critical for the interdisciplinary jobs our country is starting to create. Working through problems with a group or on your own helps them to learn how they process information and make connections. STEM teaches us to be comfortable in situations we are unsure of because you have practiced for it.
Kayla Morgan, AmeriCorps Summer Educator: There’s a lot of things that are applicable that you wouldn’t even think of that are naturalistic. We play with the science that we see everyday in our environment and our parks.
*From Left to Right: AmeriCorps Naturalist Educators Braadlyn, Kayla Sherman,
Kayla Morgan, Sierra, Sunny, and a Junior Camp Counselor
Aleigh Cocroft, AmeriCorps Summer Educator: It connects a lot. Like this week, the kids learned about water and how reliant they are on water and how important it is to be able to study our water and keep it healthy. So we help draw a lot of connections between everyday life and science that they didn’t realize.
*Aleigh leads a lesson during summer camp
3. How do you try to promote diversity and inclusion for students through outdoor education? What kinds of things do you try to be mindful of in preparation and during a lesson?
Aleigh: We did “Skype a Scientist” with female scientists and first-generation scientists. And we did lessons where we taught them about female scientists and minorities. I think the best way is to just show representation so that they feel seen and they can see themselves in scientists. It shows them that they can grow up and do it themselves.
Sierra Kirby, AmeriCorps Naturalist Educator: One way we have tried to incorporate diversity and inclusion into our lessons is by highlighting scientists with minority backgrounds and teaching about science ethics. We have dedicated an entire lesson to talk about scientists that have had their contributions to science omitted from history books because of how racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression have impacted which scientists receive recognition.
I want all of our campers to know that they can be successful scientists no matter who they are, what they look like, who they love, or how they identify. We know we are important mentors and role models for these children and we take educating future generations to be kinder and more accepting very seriously.I am proud of all of the SSP educators for taking a strong stand against racism and all forms of oppression and for passing these values along to the next generation of leaders.
*Sierra teaches campers a lesson about animal physiology
*Bradlyn teaches campers how to dissect and study flowers
Bradlyn Wissert, AmeriCorps Naturalist Educator: I try to promote diversity and inclusion in every lesson that I'm involved with, and that begins with us educators ensuring that we are always using inclusive language to address both each other and the campers. Another important part of this is understanding that people have different backgrounds, and many people come from non-traditional households. As a science-based summer camp, we also make sure that we include lessons focused on women and non-white scientists and inventors.
Sunny Perez-Navarro, AmeriCorps Naturalist Educator: It’s very rare for me to hear from kids, “I can’t do this because i’m a girl,” or, “You can’t do this because you’re a girl.” At this age, kids are still very enthusiastic about their belief that they can be scientists or inventors. We try to always have examples for the kids to look up to. And really just saying, “Yes, you can totally do that. Here are some examples of people who did it.” Giving them an adult who believes in them and supports them is really important.
4. How do you encourage enthusiasm for science in those who may not be eager about it?
Jack Rumery, AmeriCorps Summer Educator: I see curiosity as a defining characteristic of childhood. The world around them is so full of new things that are begging for discovery and understanding. With that in mind, I think science can be framed and taught in a way that invokes that curiosity first and foremost. Whether a kid considers themself a fan of science or not, it’s possible to find a way to engage them through the recognition of that principle. There is an innate part of each of them that is saying “well why? I wonder how that works”, and those questions are at the core of scientific discovery.
*Jack leads a lesson during summer camp
Sam Lee, Wellness Outreach Coordinator VISTA: Science is often presented as something very dry and methodical, which it can indeed be. However, if it's presented in a way that's engaging and exciting, a way to work with your hands and make discoveries, even kids previously uninterested might find they have a penchant for it.
Devin: We encourage enthusiasm for science by showing these kids an exciting and enjoyable experience. The goal of the program is not to teach as much science as possible in the short amount of time we are with the kids, but to show them a fun experience with science. We hope that when they do reach the time to decide what they want to pursue for an education or career, they can reflect on their positive experience with our program, and hopefully pursue something in a scientific field.
*Birdwatching during a Junior Naturalist event at the Nature Study Area
Sunny: I always try to go into lessons being as eager as I can be, because the energy I bring into it really sets the mood for the lesson. If there’s ever a particularly obstinate kid, I try to find things for them to help me with like carrying things or helping set up the lesson. They’re usually willing to at least do that much. Also, just letting them sit in the back and watch their friends do the activities often makes them more curious. They don’t stay there long. Curiosity is a natural instinct in children, and if they watch their friends start to have fun, they’ll start to want to see what’s going on and get in on the action too.
5. What kind of impact do you hope to have on your students? What lessons do you hope they carry with them throughout the rest of their education?
Jack: Summertime is, for kids, a chance for such memorable experiences. I think back to my own childhood summers and, more than anything, it’s the sunshine, the laughter, and the friends that I remember. To be a part of fostering that experience for some kids now is a great feeling.
Anna Oetting, AmeriCorps Naturalist Educator: I would, of course, love for my students to remember what they learned about in regards to caring for the environment. But, in the end, I hope I offered a time or place that felt safe and inviting. I hope it was a time they felt cared for, appreciated, and seen. And I hope it was a time they felt empowered and passionate towards science and all it has to offer.
*Sierra (left) and Anna (right) conduct a lesson during Junior Naturalists
Hannah Lansverk, SSP Program Director: My hope is to inspire enthusiasm and curiosity about science and the natural world that will continue throughout the students' lives--whether that manifests as a career in STEM or a love being outdoors or a desire to continually learn new things about the world around them. I hope that throughout the rest of their education and beyond they carry with them that science is all about investigation and discovery--and that anyone can be a scientist, not just as a career but in their daily lives.
6. What is something you try to teach your students that you wished a teacher would have taught you when you were younger?
Kayla Sherman: Growth Mindset. Knowledge comes from making mistakes. I try to teach the students that mistakes will always happen, it’s how you deal with the knowledge that’s important. It’s okay to dwell for a short time but then come back and allow it to show you how to solve the problem in a different way.
*Kayla assists with an experiment during Junior Naturalists
Anna: One of our main themes we teach is being a steward and being sustainable, specifically on the environmental side. I didn’t know a lot about these topics until I went to college. Now they are one of my big passions. It is so important to me that understanding and knowledge of sustainability is spread. It’s wonderful to see those topics being taught to kids so young. Hopefully, as they grow these topics of sustainability and being a steward will be a normal part of their lives and values.
Gianna Petersen, AmeriCorps Summer Educator: I wish someone taught me that science can be something creative. As a kid, I just wanted to do arts and crafts all the time. I think that’s something we do really well at this camp is combine science and art, which I think is really cool for people that are minded like that. I used to think it was super methodical, but I realize that there’s a lot of creativity in science.
*Gianna leads a lesson during camp
7. What is your favorite memory/story of a student or classroom experience?
Anna: One of my favorite experiences was when I was taking a class of (I think) second graders on a field trip to look for insects. One of the kids in my group was not super interested at first. He was a little frightened of the insects and didn't want to catch any. Thankfully, I was able to take some extra time and we practiced catching smaller insects together, which helped him feel more comfortable. Usually, at the end of field trips we give the kids a little bit of time to play on the playground. My whole group was, of course, thrilled to get some extra time on the jungle gym, except for him. So instead of playing, he and I got to find some more cool insects and even a little frog. It was really special to see his interest and confidence grow during the field trip. It taught me a lot about meeting kids on their level and taking that extra time to make their experience more enjoyable.
Kayla Morgan: Definitely seeing the kids interacting with crawdads and river time. Seeing them get into aquatic play and know about the different watersheds was really cool.
Sunny: There was one kindergarten class where I was leading 3 girls and 1 boy, and the whole way there, the girls just kept repeating, “Ewww I don’t want to touch any bugs.” And this particular park had an infestation of boxelder bugs, which are pretty chill animals. So we were using the aspirators as a way to introduce them to the bugs and show them that they don’t have to be afraid of them. After that, the girls then spent the whole rest of the class looking for bugs. So helping the little ones overcome their fears and be more engaged was a great experience.
*Sunny assists campers with their Tesla Coils
8. Do you think you've made positive impacts on your students/campers? How so? (of course you have! We just want to hear it in your words :))
Bradlyn: I really hope that the students that I educate are left with a love for the natural world and inspiration to care for it. I also really try to drive home the notion that it's ok to make mistakes; sometimes you just need to start over and try again. After all, science is made up of mistakes.
Jaime: Yes, I personally think I had made numerous positive contributions to students. One story in particular is about one of our very engaged campers. Since this student’s origins are from Argentina, he and I shared the multicultural background that connects us as humans. Our relationship grew by speaking Spanish every day and talking about our grandfathers. This student excelled in all the lessons. After he finished, he normally wanted to stay longer and practice his Spanish language with me. The opportunity of sharing and teaching this little boy about the world was unique, and I hope he remembers this 2020 Summer Science Camp as I know I will.
*Jaime instructs a group of students on a project
We will be welcoming a new group of AmeriCorps Naturalist Educators in September! Please keep an eye out for updates regarding the Junior Naturalist and Student Stewards Programs. Also, be sure to subscribe to our Student Stewards Science Channel on Youtube to be notified about new content!