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.
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.
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
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.