Nature Lovers Need Apply: Join Us As A Volunteer Naturalist

Visit any of our country’s national parks, and the first few faces that greet you on your way in are there to help you make the most of your time outdoors. They’re trained to help you find the right trail, stay safe, learn about park history, and maybe, most importantly, locate a bathroom. These wonderful people make your park adventure exponentially better.

Soon, friendly faces like those found in our national parks will also greet you upon arrival in Frick Park. And, we’re excited to announce, one of those faces could be yours!

The new building will serve as a welcome center at the gates of Frick Park.

Starting this year, we’re introducing a new opportunity fit for those who love parks and want to tell the whole world about ’em. The new Volunteer Naturalists program, kicking off next month, will train a small cadre of park lovers to be part docent, tour guide, and welcome wagon at the new Frick Environmental Center.

What is the Volunteer Naturalist program?

Commencing February 8th, the program includes eight small-group trainings that cover topics like Frick Park history, park interpretation, CPR, and the new Frick Environmental Center building. Taught by long-time Naturalist Educator Mike Cornell, these trainings are designed to give Volunteer Naturalists — whatever their background coming into the program — the tools to be park experts.

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Mike says: “Any adult can become a Volunteer Naturalist. All you need is a passion for nature and history, and a desire to share that passion!”

The Frick Environmental Center, once opened, will be home base for the Volunteer Naturalist squad. They’ll be stationed here to provide park visitors with insights on things like the best trails for strollers, the energy-saving aspects of the new Center, how to get involved in volunteering, and much more.

In case you needed any more reason to join, Volunteer Naturalists will also be getting special swag like shirts, hats, and water bottles!

Applications are currently being accepted for this program. Interested? Find more information and sign up here.

Questions? Contact Mike at mcornell@pittsburghparks.org.

Parks Educator Takes Pride in Planning Hikes

This post was originally written and posted by our friends at Venture Outdoors. Check out their blog here!

On December 24, Parks Conservancy Naturalist Educator Mike Cornell will be leading his third annual, all-ages winter hike through Frick Park.

In 2012, Cornell led his first hike on a whim. He was in the office on December 24, Christmas Eve, and decided that if had to be in office, he would see if anyone wanted to come out for a hike. He put up a posting on Facebook: “Gonna take a hike at noon.” Approximately eight to 10 people showed up and a tradition was born. This year, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy expects between 25-30 people. The hike has become so popular so quickly that they are hoping to do another winter hike in January 2016.

Cornell’s outdoors education has spanned most of his life. Since he was 15, he worked on education and hikes with the Frick Environmental Center. Growing up in Point Breeze meant that Cornell was always out and about.

“I’ve been going outside my whole life and I just want to share it with other people,” Cornell said. “It’s so great to show others what is so great about the outdoors and what they can see out in the woods.”

Cornell went to school in Syracuse at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where he studied environmental science in natural history and interpretation. During summers, he would return to Pittsburgh to work in the parks at the Frick Environmental Center.

Photo provided by Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Photo: Mark Simpson

Nowadays, Cornell prepares for his hikes well ahead of time. When he first begins to create a hike, he imagines what it will look like: will he try to get as far possible, cover as much ground as he can? Will he try to educate his audience on trees or birds? It is essential for him to pick a topic for the hike. Once he chooses a topic, he narrows it down to a specific theme or anchor.

“For instance, I really like winter tree ID hikes; I always default to trees!” Cornell said. “What am I going to do to make it interesting this year?”

He looks at ways to make the winter tree ID hike interesting, like educating his audience on which trees can be used to make a winter tea.

“Maybe we’ll walk around the park and sample teas from different types of trees,” Cornell said. “We could talk about additional properties, like, historically speaking, how trees were used for tea and to get people through harsh winters.”

Once he locks down his theme or anchor, he takes to the route. Cornell explores and walks potential paths and figures out the different things he wants to show his audience.

“I make sure I can see the trees I want to see or I check out the best place to see birds or fossils,” Cornell said.

Sometimes he charts out his route on a map to get exact distances and times.

“I like to start and end when I say I will,” Cornell said.

Photo by Melissa McMasters for Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Photo: Melissa McMasters

Though he may mimic past hikes’ theme, no one hike is the same. Every outdoors experience offers a unique perspective or a surprising event. This past summer, for instance, Cornell was out in the early morning for a run and ran into a six-point buck in the middle of the trail. He had seen other bucks playing around the area in earlier weeks. The buck approached Cornell as he stood very still. The buck turned sideways and gently bumped Cornell with his antler.

“It was like he was waiting for me to come after him,” Cornell said, “So I gently tapped him on the back and then he tapped me. I had a little game of tag with a deer and it was so surreal.”

From planning hikes to leading them, it seems Cornell is out in the parks enough that even the deer and bucks have taken a liking to him.

– Danielle Levsky, Communications and Media Coordinator at Venture Outdoors

Though the upcoming winter hike is now closed for registration, check back with us at the Parks Conservancy to see when Mike will host his next hike. Also, check out Venture Outdoors’ upcoming hikes, like the New Year’s Resolution Hike on January 1, the Game Day Hike on January 3 and the Winter Tree ID Walk on January 9.

Take a Tour of the New Frick Environmental Center

Like the unfolding of a page in a pop-up book, the new Frick Environmental Center has been growing from a flat architectural rendering into a real three-dimensional building since last August. In that time, the old, burnt building has been razed, construction has been progressing, and over 250 community members, government representatives, students, members of the press, and others have taken one of our free tours of the site.

Our final tour of the season having just passed, we wanted to offer everyone interested in the building a chance to get in on the ground floor (so to speak) and learn about the building. Missed the real thing? Read on for a virtual walk-through of this exciting project.

The new Center. Taken October 20, 2015.

Welcome to your park

Before we enter the site (and after we all put on our hard hats and construction vests – this is an active site, after all), let’s talk about the real reason why we’re building this new Center: Frick Park, and all those who come to visit it.

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Summer campers in Frick Park.

Great cities deserve great parks, and Frick Park is a real gem. The new Center will be owned by the City, operated by us, and open to all. It will serve as a welcome center for what was designed as the park’s main entrance. Nestled beside an allée of black locust trees that will act as pathway from city to woodland, the new Center will invite park visitors to find new trails, learn park history, and much more with open doors. Park visitors will also be greeted by nearly 200 trees and more than 6,500 native plants planted throughout the new landscape and woodlands.

In addition to being a welcome facility, the new Center will serve as a springboard for the outdoor learning programs that have been taking place in Frick Park for years. We use parks as classrooms, and the building will be an invaluable tool for the programs that take place all year long.

The big idea

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Geothermal tube hook-ups.

Only eight buildings in the world have succeeded in gaining the Living Building Challenge certification that the new Center aims to achieve. This building certification, which defines the most advanced measure of sustainability, is judged on seven performance categories, or Petals: Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. During this tour, we’ll be focusing on how the new Center working towards three of the most difficult Petals: Water, Energy and Materials.

As if Living Building wasn’t enough, the Center will also be constructed to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designation in the highest nomination, platinum. LEED is judged on points; earn some points by installing bike racks, earn big points by installing geothermal.

Living Building Petal: Net-Zero Energy

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Radiant floor tubing spreads hot, cool temperatures throughout building. 

In order to achieve net-zero energy (the Center needs to make more or as much energy as it uses), ultra efficiency is needed. In other words, we don’t have to produce as much energy if we can cut the building’s energy needs. We project that we can use 40% less energy than similarly-sized buildings in our region with our more efficient design, such as a tight building envelope that will hold on to hot or cold air inside the building better than the average 100-year-old Pittsburgh home.

As we all know, our city’s seasons range from polar vortex to Sub-Saharan. While a traditional building would typically have to heat or cool indoor temperatures from whatever the thermometer reads, the Center will have a baseline 55°F to work from. How? An ancient-turned-modern technique: ground heat. With 18 wells bored 520 feet into the ground, we’ll be tapping into ground temperatures that are constant, no matter the season.

Living Building Petal: Net-Zero Water

Do you know how it sometimes rains in Pittsburgh? The new Center is going to be a celebration of precipitation. The Living Building Challenge requires net-zero water, meaning that stormwater must be captured on site and the building won’t depend wholly on municipal water.

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Rendering of the Center’s rain veil.

This goal doesn’t just aid our city’s ailing sewer system; it’s a unique opportunity for us to make the new Center the place to be on a rainy day. The slightly slanted roof will send water cascading off of one side of the building to make a rain veil. An art installation similar to the water steps in front of Heinz Field will playfully send water to recharge park streams. When kids wake up on rainy mornings, we want them to come to the Center.

Not all rainwater will be used for show. Much of it will be captured in an enormous 15,000-gallon cistern for use in practical applications like watering plants and restrooms, eventually to be treated and released on site.

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The 15,000-gallon water cistern before being put underground.

Living Building Petal: Materials

Every single material that makes up the new Environmental Center is painstakingly chosen based on certain Living Building criteria. Is it locally sourced? Is it a possibly health or environmental risk? Does it off-gas? Materials like PVC piping are on the red list, meaning they’re not allowed in the building. Even the hard hats are checked: the main ingredient in them is actually sugar cane!

FEC bridge construction concrete blue sky Oct 20 2015 multivista

Other fun features

There are so many exciting features of the new Center. But the building is not the whole story. Here’s what else you can expect from the project:

  • A renovated fountain. Remember the old, busted fountain that sat unused on the site? We’ll be restoring this popular water feature that begs to be sat beside.
  • Solar panels where you park. One important point that community members made during the planning process was preserving parking. Fear not! Parking remains, and with an added feature: a solar canopy. This will keep your car cool on sunny summer days while providing power and channeling water to the cistern.
  • A new barn. The people have spoken, and they also want more restrooms. The new barn, near the parking lot, will also help us collect stormwater for use on site.
  • Restored gatehouses. Originally designed by the esteemed John Russell Pope, the restored gatehouses will once again be brought back to their former splendor.

We hope you’re as excited as we are for this project. It is, after all, for you! Like what you’ve been reading? Support this project with a gift today!

Stay up-to-date on what’s happening with this project. Visit our site for weekly updates.

Environmental Education in the Parks (Video)

As Director of Education Marijke Hecht recently penned in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Op-Ed, “Outdoor environmental education cultivates curiosity and discovery in children, the fundamental building blocks of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) literacy, and it encourages students to make science a part of everyday life.”

Starting this month, our school programs are once again kicking into gear, with kids ages three through 18 using the parks as classrooms. Through these programs, kids are learning not only in their schools but also in the parks, growing through curiosity and discovery along the way.

These programs not only equip kids from across the region with the skills to succeed in a myriad of disciplines, but they’re also FUN!

Don’t believe us? See what outdoor education means straight from the young minds out in the field:

Your support makes programs like these possible. Consider a donation to environmental education programs here!

Learners to Leaders: Learning Pathways in the Parks

What does it mean to be a life-wide learner? How does one travel a learning pathway?

Educators talk about moments when students “light up,” or demonstrate curiosity and an interest in learning more. Last year, I had the opportunity to spark those light-up moments while working with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy educators as an Activation Lab Design Fellow, a position with the Activation Lab, funded by the The Grable Foundation.

My goal? Design life-wide learning environments (learning that takes place both in and out of school) that ignite interest in students and encourage persistent engagement.

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Young Naturalists teaching youth how to identify macroinvertebrates.

To do this, I worked with Parks Conservancy educators on designing learning pathways that would lead students from the High School Urban EcoStewards program (a program through their schools) into the Young Naturalists program (an independent summer opportunity).

Teachers were critical partners along the pathway. They identified students who would be a good fit for the Young Naturalist program and supported them through the application process. With teachers as “learning brokers,” programs successfully drew youth from multiple high schools and neighborhoods. Strategic social support encouraged students to explore opportunities offered by other organizations. In fact, this summer, two of the Young Naturalists will be involved in field study and conservation work in our national parks as Student Conservation Association crew members.

Informal learning programs encourage rich learning experiences that build on what happens in the classroom. Programs like these in the parks are more flexible in honoring joy, humor, compassion, spirit, risk-taking, innovation, and curiosity as essential elements of knowing, learning and relating. They allow learners those chances to “light up,” cultivate a deeper sense of interconnectedness, and create their own personalized learning pathways that break out of the often-rigid structure of schools.

We didn’t test the Young Naturalists to see if the program improved academic performance; rather, we observed them engage with the natural world around them with increasing confidence, ask questions to further their understanding, and listened to them as they described how they carried their learning into their everyday lives.

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The five Young Naturalists presented to hundreds at the Sprout Learning Pathways Summit at the end of their program.

Every run I have on Falls Ravine trail in Frick Park triggers a memory of the Young Naturalists guiding young summer camp participants in finding and identifying macroinvertebrates in the creek.

Every day I think about a conversation with one of the participants in which she explained how she now catches herself instinctively identifying trees on her walks to school.

These memories are evidence of how informal learning programs can enrich and empower our young people, and I draw from them often to inform my own research, which I hope will contribute to the design of practices and infrastructures that expand equitable access to rich learning contexts.

Imagine if learning pathways like these were available for every learner in our region for whatever topic they were interested in? The Parks Conservancy was successful in bringing together a diverse set of learners through social support on a pathway that spanned the divide between in-school and out-of-school learning. Organizational practices like this have the potential to transform our regional learning landscapes from a set of individual programs to truly interconnected learning contexts that support the learning and development of all youth.

Stacy Kehoe is a doctoral student in Learning Sciences and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh. Previously, she developed enrichment models for a public high school in Brooklyn, linking students to programs for travelling abroad, pre-college, visual and performing arts, the environment, and youth leadership. She is pursuing her graduate degree to study the incredible results she saw in Brooklyn and replicate them here in Pittsburgh.

Celebrating Earth Day in Pittsburgh’s Parks

This week’s post is from our “Let’s Talk About Parks” series. Posted bimonthly in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “Let’s Talk About Parks” is designed to encourage exploration and discovery of Pittsburgh’s urban parks. See the complete series here.

Every year, people around the world celebrate Earth Day on April 22. It’s a time to recognize the importance of protecting our natural world, to take note of human actions that are hurting our environment and to learn about actions that each of us can take to help make our world cleaner and healthier.

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Schenley Park tree planting, 1923. Photo credit: Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections.

The first Earth Day was held April 22, 1970, but before that people did not pay as much attention to the condition of land, waterways and air. The success of a city was measured by how much its factories produced, how many businesses and jobs it had, and how fast it was growing. But over time, as cities and neighborhoods grew and trees and green spaces were replaced with buildings and parking lots and roads, people began to see that there were consequences when you didn’t pay attention to nature. They saw that rivers and streams were being polluted, smog and smoke in the air was making people sick, and species of birds and animals were starting to disappear. They saw that a place that was good for working also needed to be clean and beautiful, or else, in the end, no one would want to live there.

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Two girls plant a tree in Highland Park.

Pittsburgh is special because many years ago city and community leaders had the wisdom to set aside hundreds of acres of woodlands as parks for everyone to enjoy. Today, thousands of trees in our urban parks help clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide, they help protect our waterways by capturing rainwater that would otherwise wash into our sewer systems, and they act as home to countless species of plants and wildlife. About 15 years ago, Pittsburgh’s first Earth Day in our city parks involved dozens of volunteers planting trees on Clayton Hill in Frick Park. Even though it poured rain participants had fun and kept planting, showing that Pittsburghers will celebrate our parks in any weather.

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Will you be joining us for our annual Earth Day in Frick Park? From April 17 – 19 the park is the place to be, with free family-friendly activities like a community campfire, volunteer event, and a full day of naturalist-led hikes. Find the full schedule of events here. 

The first ever Pittsburgh Earth Day will also be taking place on April 22. With scheduled activities and events all over the city, there’s something for everyone. And be sure to swing by Market Square for the Everpower Earth Day Festival. Proceeds from the festival benefit the Parks Conservancy! See the full schedule of Pittsburgh Earth Day events here.

Love of Learning: Observations of Environmental Education

In order to be a great educator, you have to love learning.

Educators need their own sense of adventure, curiosity and excitement about their subject in order to transfer it to their students. Rachel Carson outlined the importance of this idea well with this quote:

If a child is to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.

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Frick Environmental Center education team members. 

At the Frick Environmental Center, we offer programming that connects children to nature in the city, and encourages them to explore and learn about their local environment.  For some students, our programs are their first experience in a wild setting and a whole new world is revealed to them. They see the relationship between themselves, their community and the environment in a new light.

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Environmental Center educators observing the local flora.

I love being the adult that introduces kids to nature. Like many of you, getting outside with my parents, scout masters and teachers led to a lifetime appreciation and commitment to the environment. Their enthusiasm about nature and the outdoors was contagious. As an educator, I want to recreate that with my students.

Earlier this month, the Parks Conservancy’s education team attended the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators conference at Lake Raystown Lodge.  It was amazing to be in such a beautiful setting, surrounded by educators from across the state that shared our passion for nature and environmental education. The conference was an opportunity to meet new people, reconnect with colleagues, share experiences and expertise, and gain new ideas for our programs. Workshops covered a wide range of topics including the value of nature play, leading an interpretive hike, and connecting with the outdoors using technology.

For me, the best workshops balanced big picture education philosophy, practical mechanics of program delivery, and the opportunity for us to participate in activities as students. In a particularly amazing nature journaling workshop, an impassioned educator stressed that nature journaling should go beyond impartial scientific observations to capture students’ experiences and feelings. For her, a successful journal entry should recreate and transport a student back to a moment in time. She provided tips on preparing students to be comfortable, capturing information through writing and drawing, and using all of our senses to make observations.

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Journaling at the PAEE conference.

 

When we put her tips into practice by going out to journal, I was reminded of the value of taking time to stop and wait for the world to reveal itself.  I was also reminded how easy it is to forget instructions and lose focus in a cold drizzle; how hard it is to sit silent and still for 10 minutes; and how awkward it can feel to share a drawing you’re not particularly proud of. It gave me a better understanding of the students I work with and an appreciation that what really matters is providing an experience.

The conference gave me an opportunity to recharge, reconnect, and revisit why I do what I do. It reaffirmed that the most important thing I can do as an educator is to share my own love of nature.

Taiji Nelson, Naturalist Educator