High School Urban EcoStewards – A Student Perspective

UES_logo_b&wThrough High School Urban Eco Stewards, schools adopt a plot of land in one of Pittsburgh’s four regional parks (Frick, Highland, Riverview, Schenley).   Students visit their site four times throughout the course of the year to complete ecological restoration projects to control erosion, clean up dumpsites, manage invasive species, and plant native species.  At each session, the students document their experiences, make observations, and reflect on the value of their service in nature journals. 

Non-native invasive species refer to flora or fauna that are transported, purposefully or unintentionally, out of their native region and do not have natural controls (pests, pathogens, or predators) in their new climate.  They out-compete native species for sunlight, water, food sources, etc. and reduce biodiversity.

We at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy are so fortunate to go on this journey of discovery with High School students from all over the city. We are thrilled to share this account of the High School Urban EcoStewards program that was sent to us by Tracey Thomas, who will begin her senior year at Westinghouse High School this fall…

May 2013 marked my third year in High School Urban EcoStewards or Eco as most participants call it. I’ve really enjoyed working out in Frick Park to plant trees, flowers, shrubs, dig up invasive species and just sit in nature and write in a journal. I started Eco back in my ninth grade year when my afterschool program, the YMCA Westinghouse Lighthouse Project, introduced the program to a few of us.

Growing up, kids are exposed to nature. But Eco was a way to be exposed to nature while helping it thrive. By all means, Eco didn’t introduce me to planting and learning about nature. I actually had a summer job working for the Student Conservation Association (SCA), which is similar to Eco but at more parks. SCA took a group of about seven-to-ten teenagers (fifteen and older) and took them to different parks around Pittsburgh to fix up the parks, work on stone staircases, plant trees, flowers, shrubs and remove invasive species. I guess that’s why I immediately jumped at being a part of Eco.

The first day we had Eco, we took a walk around the area in which we were to be working. It was not really that far from the entrance but it was still somewhat far. When it rained, the trail would get muddy and we’d have to struggle not to lose our shoes in the mud, but our work site was beautiful. It was an open field with three giant full grown trees in it. One of the trees was a cherry tree and another was in the oak family. The field also had a big, almost jungle gym look to it because of all the grapevines that wrapped themselves around the shrubs and some of the smaller trees. Over the course of that year, we planted about six baby trees and cut down a lot of grapevines.

080613_grapevine fence

The grapevine “fence” that Tracey and her classmates made

The most memorable part about the field was our art project. Instead of throwing away the grapevines, we made a “fence” out of the grapevines to plant inside of.  The purpose of the “fence” was to create something that would protect the plants we would later plant from any animal that would try to eat them. It took a lot of time sketching ideas, but when we finally came up with one, we loved it. Once we finished constructing it, we planted about four to six baby shrubs and a couple flowers inside the “fence.”

The next year, we worked half of the year at the site but soon moved to a new site as there was nothing more we could add to the old site. We basically filled up every available space. The new site though, was much closer to the entrance and was behind a nursery maintained by the park. Sometimes, I miss the old site but the new one had more trees for us to identify and it did offer a good view of the street below and beyond.

At the new site, the first thing we did was write in a journal. When we wrote in our journals, we were to find a spot and write down all of the observations we could come up with. That included animals, trees, sounds, feelings and anything else we could come up with. I think a couple of us even wrote little poems or raps from our spots. The new site was peaceful and bigger than the old one.

Tracey cutting grapevine in Frick Park

Tracey cutting grapevine in Frick Park

After we finished journaling, we jumped right into planting. We planted shrubs and trees, but I’ve long since forgotten the names. Each time we came to the site, we would plant a little, journal a little, and try to identify what type of trees, shrubs and flowers were at our site.

This year, after one and a half years at the new site, we planted trees and flowers. For every tree planted, we were to plant two flowers, one on either side of the tree but not too close. After we planted the trees and the flowers, we went and dug up a few invasive trees and plants. I forget their names but we got to use shovels, loppers, and an axe. It was a new experience for me to use an axe and watch someone up close use one. I felt thrilled. At the end of this third year, we talked about working in Eco as a future career.

I wholeheartedly enjoy working in Eco and I can’t wait until next year. I’m curious and anxious at the same time about whether we will have a new site and to see how the old sites turned out. I’m glad I participated in Eco and if I could do it again, I would and I will. Eco in some ways has become a part of my life. Because of Eco, I appreciate nature a little bit more than I did before.

 - Tracey Thomas

YMCA Westinghouse Lighthouse Project Participant

Help us sustain programs like High School Urban EcoStewards by making a gift designated to our environmental education programs. Or find out if your company participates in the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program and encourage them to support our education programs that mean so much to students like Tracey.

Mission Ground Truth:21 – Educational Partnerships (part one)

Despite the frigid temperatures, the wind chill, and a two-hour delay to boot, 10 teachers showed up to the Frick Environmental Center for our first ever Mission Ground Truth: 21 teacher training. Mission Ground Truth is an inquiry-based experiential science curriculum that gives middle school students the opportunity to investigate the health and value of forest and freshwater stream ecosystems. Combining classroom and field sessions, Mission Ground Truth gives students a glimpse into the everyday life of an ecologist.  After piloting the program in the spring with the 7th grade science classes at Propel Montour, we have expanded our reach this school year to include Propel Homestead, Propel McKeesport, Winchester Thurston, The Ellis School, and the Environmental Charter School.

Educational Partnerships

Propel teachers learn how to use dichotomous keys to ID tree leaves.

Teacher trainings are an important part of developing a partnership between informal educators and classroom teachers. We have different styles, different objectives, and different experiences to bring to the table. The training was a chance for everyone to get to know each other, establish appropriate roles and expectations, and to introduce new teachers to the content of the program. We wanted to provide a space where they could ask questions, give feedback, and learn from Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy staff and teachers who have previously gone through the program.

Many of the teachers had limited experience teaching outdoors and wanted some tips to prepare their class and themselves. As an informal educator myself, two of the most integral aspects of a successful program are ensuring that students are dressed appropriately for the weather (nothing is more distracting than discomfort) and having an enthusiastic and involved teacher on board. Really, it all comes back to communicating expectations to others. We had a great conversation about how helpful it is for the teacher to model the good behavior we expect from our students. As much as the training is for the teachers to become comfortable and acquainted with the program, it was also a space for us to get feedback on the curriculum content. From these discussions, we developed an Environmental Education tip sheet to share with all of our program partner teachers.

Calculating the area of Frick Park using Google Earth

At the end of every discovery activity simulation, we always came back to the overarching goal:  We want the kids to have hands-on experience outdoors doing what scientists do. They’re getting the chance to see what it means to be an ecologist. That means doing research and making predictions, then going out into the field to test those predictions and analyze their data. Both elements are essential. Once they understand that, then they can work through the details that make it all happen.

Be sure to check out part two of our blog next week to learn more about Mission Ground Truth:21 and how we use parks as classrooms.

Bailey Warren is the Education Program Assistant at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy through a 10-month apprenticeship with Public Allies Pittsburgh AmeriCorps program.

Mission Ground Truth – Teaching Science With Nature

Mission Ground Truth Team in Frick Park

Environmental education is one of the most fundamental investments we make in the future of our parks. At the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy we understand that through educating and engaging youth, we can grow a new generation of park stewards. Our High School Urban EcoSteward program takes students from six area High Schools out into the parks to learn ecological restoration and maintenance techniques. This service learning technique benefits the communities in which the students work. We are also preparing to begin construction on the new Environmental Center at Frick Park which will be a state of the art environmental education facility with a focus on hands on learning.

Our newest endeavor, Mission Ground Truth, is a collaboration between the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Frick Environmental Center, the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, and the Schrader Environmental Center at the Oglebay Institute in Wheeling, West Virginia. The program will be tailored to middle school students with a foundation in scientific processes of discovery. In Pittsburgh, the course will pilot in April with Propel schools.

Special nets are used to collect bugs

On February 22, 2012, members of the Mission Ground Truth team met in Frick Park to finalize the curriculum which will focus on stream and forest health. “We want to teach kids what ecological services the parks are doing for us,” says Parks Conservancy Education Coordinator, Taiji Nelson. “We want to show kids that science is a real job and that they can do it, not all scientists are in white lab coats.”

When learning about forest health, students will focus largely on the composition of wooded areas. What type of forest is it? Maple, Oak, Hickory? They’ll learn about fragmentation which occurs when small areas of a forest are cut down, dividing a large forest into smaller pieces – this most often occurs for the creation of roads and walkways. Since different plants and animals favor forest interiors versus edge habitats, fragmentation can dramatically affect the ecology of a particular forest.

Collecting data with a Pasco GLX Xplorer

There are a couple of ways Mission Ground Truth students will evaluate stream health. One is through measuring the chemical characteristics of a stream using Pasco GLX Xplorers which Taiji says is like “taking the temperature” of the stream to determine its health. The GLX Xplorers will measure the water’s ph, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and conductivity which is basically the amount of pollution that is dissolved in the stream. Waterbots, which have been developed by CREATE Lab, will be placed at different points within the Nine Mile Run Watershed and take similar readings constantly to show the students how variables such as time, season, and rainfall affect the stream health.

Equally important to understand the health of a stream is to discover what bugs and vegetation are present. Using special square nets, the kids will be responsible for cataloging the bugs (benthic macroinvertebrates) that are found in a one meter area. By disturbing the water and turning over rocks they will find and count the different varieties of bugs which they can identify using a guide provided to them. Since some bugs can survive select pollutants and others can’t, the final bug counts they produce will be telling.     

 Mission Ground Truth has been in operation at the Schrader Environmental

Cranefly larva found in Frick Park stream

Center for 10 years. The program is coming to Frick Park with the help of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the Frick Environmental Center and support from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. Additionally, the Parks Conservancy is helping to refocus the curriculum, define learning goals, implement assessment tools, and find ways to make the data usable. The CREATE Lab at CMU will incorporate technology through the use of Gigapan and waterbot technology, as well as by developing an online platform to share data, stories, and questions.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions Mission Ground Truth will make is that the information collected by our budding scientists and by the CREATE Lab waterbots will be made public. In this way the students will be learning and simultaneously contributing to a data pool that will help us to better understand the health of our parks. This new knowledge will be integrated into the management plans for the care of our parks by the Parks Conservancy and other organizations.

If you have questions about the program feel free to contact us. Visit our website at www.pittsburghparks.org.  

Measuring the Good – Urban EcoStewards

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Anna Johnson never thought of herself as a “city” girl, but upon arriving in Pittsburgh she was surprised to find a city so carefully built into its environment. “I love how hills or rivers frame almost every view of the city,” she says. “In some urban landscapes, you can forget that there is a nature that is not human nature, but that is not the case in Pittsburgh.”

Anna Johnson surveying in Riverview Park

After calling Pittsburgh home for several years, Johnson moved to Baltimore to earn her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. “I am an urban ecologist now because of my admiration for the ecology of Pittsburgh, and my desire to find ways to better integrate our understanding of human uses and values with the natural processes that drive the diversity and distribution of plant and animal populations,” she says.

When her graduate program offered her funding for research in 2010, Johnson reached out to Dr. Daniel Bain at the University of Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Senior Restoration Ecologist, Erin Copeland to help her design a study in her favorite urban landscape. She chose to focus on the Urban EcoSteward (UES) program to measure the change that is possible when we engage in the ecological well being of our parks.   

Urban EcoSteward Program

Urban EcoStewards are members of the Pittsburgh community who volunteer to be responsible for the ecological restoration and care of a quarter acre site in one of the parks. Each EcoSteward is assigned a site coordinator who visits the site with them at least once per year and helps establish a timeline of priorities. For example, the removal of trash on a site is always priority number one in order to promote healthy soil. The removal of invasive species needs to be done before native vegetation can be planted to avoid the young plants having to compete for resources, etc.

While EcoStewards do have to be self-motivated to work on their sites, we don’t send them out into the woods without direction. Every year the program offers a series of trainings that will teach you how to do everything from safely remove trash, to identify invasive plants, or control the erosion of hillsides. These trainings are free and open to the public and you don’t have to be an EcoSteward to attend.  

The Urban EcoSteward Program is a partnership between the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Frick Environmental Center, the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, Allegheny Cleanways, and the Allegheny Land Trust. In 2011 Urban EcoStewards donated over 800 hours of service to our city’s parks.  

A Study of Stewardship

In the summer of 2010, Johnson set out into Pittsburgh’s parks to find a way to assess the ecological effectiveness of the Urban Ecosteward Program. “I wanted to know if managed plots, over time, were measurably different than unmanaged plots, in terms of herbaceous plant species abundance and composition,” she says. Her study sought to answer two basic questions…

  1. Does Urban EcoSteward management decrease the number of invasive plant species in EcoSteward plots?
  2. Does Urban EcoSteward management increase the number of native, or non-invasive, plant species?

    Invasive Garlic Mustard

Invasive species are plants or animals, either native or introduced, that outcompete and displace other desirable species.  A species may become invasive if it faces less pressure from disease or predation, has a particularly aggressive reproduction strategy, or thrives in areas where human disturbance has occurred.  Invasive plants can quickly take over an area, edging out the non-invasive plants that provide critical habitat, biodiversity and beauty in our parks.

Johnson utilized two methods to accumulate the needed data. First, she took data from the hundreds of monitoring forms that EcoStewards fill out periodically to track the progress of their site. Second, she visited a sampling of forested EcoSteward sites which represented a range of management (from 0-5 years) and surveyed plant communities. The data collected represented EcoSteward sites in Highland, Frick, Schneley, and Riverview parks.

The story being told by the UES monitoring forms was clear. “I found that managing a plot for at least two years results in a statistically significant reduction in the number of invasive plant species,” says Johnson. Her own sampling of sites confirmed this finding. “I found a trend of increasing abundance of non-invasive species and decreasing abundance of invasive species, as the duration of EcoSteward management increased.”

From an ecological perspective the Urban EcoStewards are making a difference in our parks. “It is not often that we have such a well-documented example of the positive effects people can have on their environment,” says Johnson. As the EcoStewards continue their work and collect data she is eager to see the patterns that develop. “We don’t really know what our parks, or any urban parks, will look like twenty, fifty, or one hundred years from now,” she says, “but by documenting the work that our EcoStewards do, we are developing an extremely valuable record of the results of long-term ecological stewardship.”

 
If you have questions about Anna Johnson’s research you can contact her at annaj1@umbc.edu or leave questions in the comments and we’ll forward them along to her. Learn more about how to become an Urban EcoSteward here, or join us for one of our UES training sessions. Digging in the dirt not for you? Consider making a donation to benefit our parks.

Dedicated Volunteers Made a Huge Impact in 2011

Our volunteers donated 7,086 hours of service in 2011

2011 has been an amazing year of volunteers with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy!  Volunteers play an absolutely critical role in our mission to improve the quality of life for the people of Pittsburgh by restoring the park system to excellence.  Through the efforts of our volunteers, the City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Works, our many partner organizations and Parks Conservancy staff, our city’s parks rival any across the country. 

Here is a breakdown of the 2011 volunteer program outcomes:

 

Volunteer days

In 2011, we had 75 work days where 1,543 volunteers gave 4,961 hours of service.  They volunteered as individuals or with community, religious, school, and corporate groups. They worked rain or shine, through blazing heat and freezing cold – lifting, digging, and pulling to improve the places that we all love.  Some of their outcomes include:

- Planting over 640 trees and shrubs, and over 1000 wildflowers

- Removing over 2 tons of trash and scrap metal and nearly 250 tires from illegal dumpsites

- Controlling erosion on hillsides and trails

- Removing invasive species plants that threaten habitat and biodiversity

- Maintaining and beautifying the park gardens

I’m amazed at the dedication and passion of our volunteers.  People are willing to give up their Saturdays and Sundays to get outside and work until they’re covered from head to toe in dirt.  To me, nothing beats seeing what we’ve accomplished after a hard day.  It’s instantly gratifying and what I love most about my job with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.  

Next year’s volunteer opportunities will be posted soon! To get involved on one of our 2012 volunteer days, check  the schedule here. 

 

Urban EcoStewards

Urban EcoStewards are individuals who take on long term stewardship of a quarter-acre of green space, agreeing to independently visit their site throughout the year to perform restoration activities.  The program is a collaboration between the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, the Frick Environmental Center, Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, Allegheny Land Trust and Allegheny Cleanways.  There are currently dozens of EcoStewards across the city, who together donated more than 800 hours of service this year to improve the health and beauty of Pittsburgh’s green spaces. 

Our organizations provide EcoStewards with the necessary skills to tend their site by offering a variety of trainings throughout the year, which are free and open to the public.  Trainings cover topics including:

- Invasive species identification and control

- Planting techniques

- Wildflower and tree identification

- Erosion control

- Crew Leader Training and others

Next time you’re in the parks, be on the lookout for people in the brown EcoSteward t-shirt – they can be seen hauling bags of trash, cutting invasive vines, and pulling garlic mustard.  Make sure to tell them “thank you” for the amazing work they do!

For more information about becoming an Urban EcoSteward, visit here.

 

High School Urban EcoStewards

High School Urban EcoStewards show off their T-shirts

While some people may think High School students need motivation, we at the Parks Conservancy know better.  The High School Urban EcoSteward program, which builds on the traditional EcoSteward model, engages students in hands-on restoration work to develop their observation and inquiry skills, connect them to the land, give context and relevance to principles of environmental science, and train them to be the next generation of ecological stewards.  We work with students from:

- Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy

- Perry Traditional Academy

- Pittsburgh Milliones, University Preparatory School

- The Ellis School

- Westinghouse Academy (YMCA Lighthouse)

- City Charter High School

Students visit their site monthly from October to June, rain or shine, to do restoration work and learn about the impacts that we all have on our urban environment.  In 2011, students gave 1,318 hours of service to our parks.

We had 75 volunteer work days in 2011

In total, our 2011 volunteers gave 7,086 hours of service, which equates to a donation of over $151,350.  This number is mind blowing and gives us all reason to be proud of Pittsburgh and the people who live here.  Thank you to the partner organizations and funders that make our work possible.  I hope you see as much value in the volunteers’ work as I do.  Finally, thanks again to our crew leaders and volunteers who turn out in the thousands, donating their time and effort to make a real difference.  It’s been a pleasure to meet and work with all of you.  See you in 2012!

 Taiji Nelson is the Education Program Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Cake, Balloons, and a Unicycling Juggler: Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Celebrates 15 Years

 
Happy 15th Birthday!

Schenley Plaza is my favorite Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy project. It’s so lively and energetic, and it provides an unexpected, peaceful oasis in the middle of the busy Oakland traffic. It serves many purposes to many people: a Wi-Fi spot for students and professionals, a place to enjoy lunchtime music, an outdoor yoga studio, a concert venue. And when it comes to hosting kids’ events, the Plaza is unmatched. That’s why it was the perfect place to host our 15th birthday celebration on July 10.

The party plans were already in the works when I joined the Parks Conservancy staff this spring, so I’d been looking forward to the event and envisioning many smiling faces filling the tent. Although I’ve hosted and attended events at the Plaza before, this was my first as a Parks Conservancy team member, and I was eager to welcome families to my favorite spot.

Of course, waking up to a 90 degree forecast on Sunday was a little intimidating. I went into what I call “event-mode”, which basically means worrying about cake melting and water staying cold, and ultimately going through the checklist a dozen times to make sure we didn’t forget anything. Sun block liberally applied, I headed to the Plaza and joined my coworkers and the entertainers to get ready.

The Citiparks Roving Art Cart kept budding artists busy all afternoon.

One thing I did forget is that kids don’t really mind the 90 degree temperatures like us adults do – in fact, the kids who came to the party seemed hardly phased at all. Promptly at 2 p.m., they headed right for the treat table, arming themselves with oranges, bananas, cookies and water before wandering onto the next activity. A few immediately got in line to get the first balloon animals, some opted to start the party with the face-painter, and others headed directly for the Citiparks Roving Art Cart to challenge the budding artist within. The more patient children sat for the caricature artist, who busily sketched their smiling faces, while others grabbed their favorite color marker and signed our big birthday banner.

With everything successfully underway, I wandered through the Plaza tent to see the results of our hard work and planning. I never tire of seeing a happy child enjoying him or herself on a summer day, but I admittedly was moved by the level of enthusiasm. Our hundreds of guests were fully engaged; beautiful, bright artwork hung from a clothesline by the Roving Art Cart, swinging in the welcome breeze (did I mention it was hot?). A toddler giggled and ran to hug

"Sharkie" offered hugs and high-fives to the kids.

“Sharkie”, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s mascot who graciously greeted guests all afternoon. Kids lined up to take a free ride on the PNC Carousel, and others grabbed a seat for a front row view of the juggler’s lively show, which had everything from a unicycle to a tiny basketball hoop attached to the juggler’s head.

REI's Peter Greninger presented CEO Meg Cheever and Board Chair Jerry Voros with a generous check to support volunteer training.

We did have a little business to conduct at the party; it’s our birthday, after all, so we have many people to thank for helping us achieve so much in 15 years. Director of Education Marijke Hecht took time to honor several of our outstanding volunteers, Maria Kyriacopoulos, Steve Harvan, Russ Braun, Mike Markey, and Fred and Carol McCoullough, who run the gamut from Volunteer Crew Leader to Urban EcoSteward, invasive species warrior to signage gurus. How’s that for dedication?

We also thanked Direct Energy, who generously sponsored the 15th Birthday Celebration, and many of our city and non-profit partners. And the fun part: REI presented a check to Parks Conservancy President and CEO Meg Cheever and Board Chair Jerry Voros. The check is REI’s support of our Volunteer Crew Leader training programs, appropriate as we honored volunteers. Thanks, REI. Love those big novelty checks!  

At that point we sang a hardy verse of “Happy Birthday”, and cut into a big birthday cake. It was my favorite part of the day, as I got a chance to say hello and thank our guests while serving them. (Nothing brings people together like an icing-covered piece of cake.) I was filled with pride as guests thanked us for the hard work we do in their parks, and wished us a happy birthday. And then it was back to the Art Cart, Sharkie, and the entertainers.

What could be better than seeing such happy faces enjoying our parks?

So my love for Schenley Plaza continues and is even strengthened after the 15th Birthday Celebration. As we started to clean up and guests started to head out, I heard a loud cheer come from the PNC Carousel. “Sharkie” was on his way back to the Zoo, and the kids were eagerly waving goodbye and thanking him from coming to see them. How cute is that?

Jessica Romano is proud to be Marketing & Communications Manager for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.  Check out more photos from the 15th Birthday Celebration on our Flickr site.

Take a Hike in Panther Hollow on June 30

Click on the map to see the path we're hiking through Panther Hollow.

This Thursday, June 30 is our next public meeting for the Panther Hollow Watershed Restoration project. But never fear, we’re not talking about a boring lecture. We’re taking a hike! We’ll meet up at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center at 6 p.m.

During this hike, we will be learning about and gathering feedback for pilot projects to restore the Panther Hollow Watershed.  The hike will happen rain or shine, so please wear sturdy walking shoes and bring rain gear if necessary.  Also and importantly, there will be a place to fill up a water bottle at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center, but then we will be in the park for two hours.  Please bring a refillable water bottle, there will not be bottles of water provided and the café will be closed. 

Check out the map of the path we’ll take on the walk. And if you haven’t signed up yet, there’s still time. Visit pittsburghparks.org/pantherhollow to register.

 See you on Thursday!