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.

We’ve Only Just Begun: Get Ready For A Big Parks Year

Last year was big for Pittsburgh’s parks.

All year long Parks staff tended park gardens, monitored for threats like Asian longhorned beetle, taught learners of all ages, raised important funds needed to restore much-loved spaces and monuments, worked closely with communities across the city, and so much more.

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While we do love reminiscing, we’re much more jazzed for the new year. 2016 is poised to be tremendous. Check out these big numbers below to see why the new year — our 20th! — in the parks is going to be so exciting.

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This year, you’ll be seeing the 15,618 new trees, flowers, bulbs, and shrubs that Parks Conservancy staff and volunteers planted in 2015 making your parks healthier and even more beautiful.

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What could you have done with the 6,663 hours that Parks Conservancy educators spent teaching young learners in 2015? You could watch the new Star Wars movie almost 3,000 times, or listen to Stairway to Heaven 50,000 times! These many hours will be the foundation that students will build on to learn even more about the natural world this coming year.

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This year, four fabulous park places are undergoing major transformations. Look forward to the unveiling of the new Frick Environmental Center, the restored Westinghouse Memorial and Pond in Schenley Park, the renovated Cliffside Park, and continued restoration of the Panther Hollow Watershed. Also, get excited for big things on the horizon for Allegheny Commons, Arsenal and Leslie, McKinley, Sheraden, and other community and neighborhood parks around Pittsburgh!

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Join us in the celebration of our 20th anniversary! We’re ecstatic and honored to be celebrating two decades this year, and looking forward to continue working to make your parks some of the best in the nation.

Why not make a resolution to visit 12 regional parks in 12 months as part of DCNR’s #My12Parks campaign? Find a map of your local parks here to get started!

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.

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.

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

Let’s Get Digital: City of Learning and Digital Badges

Let’s Get Digital: City of Learning and Digital Badges

Do you consider yourself a nature nerd? Do you geek out outdoors?

imageFor up-and-coming environmentalists with diverse interests, a new opportunity to build and share skill sets is about to go viral. The Sprout Fund, in collaboration with 20 organizations (including the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy) has unleashed the City of Learning initiative. Through this program, students are challenged to climb their own personal achievement ladders to gain new skills, then digitize their success.

In our hyper-connected world, young people not only have to be well-rounded, but well connected. The Sprout Fund aims to engage over 3,000 students this summer through a myriad of studies, then plug them in to digital badges as a way to quantify and share their accomplishments with teachers, college admissions, and future employers. By working through specialized curricula designed by each organization to earn badges, students can strive for cyber certifications of their achievements.

What exactly is a digital badge? Think scouting badges meets LinkedIn, explains Taiji Nelson, a Naturalist Educator here at the Parks Conservancy. Under his guidance, a team of five exceptional high school students — graduates of our High School Urban EcoSteward program — will be the pioneers not only in working towards these digital badges, but also of our Young Naturalists program. Starting in June, these Young Naturalists will spend five weeks developing expertise on park stewardship, ecology, tree identification, and much more — all while working towards badges that will show the world what they know.

Week by week, Young Naturalists will earn the following badges, embedded with data and particular to the skills that they’ve mastered:

Beginner Tree IDBeginner tree ID badge

Our budding botanists and future foresters will learn to identify the common trees of Pennsylvania by their leaves, seeds, buds, bark and branches. They do this by recording observations of 10 different native trees, learning to use field guides, attending an identification hike with a tree ID expert, and writing a field guide entry in the form of a blog.


 

Birding BasicsBirding basics badge

Naturalists will learn the basics to identify all of the birds that flit, tweet and roost in the parks. They do this by using field guides and journals to learn how to identify 10 species of birds,  hiking with a birding expert, and writing a detailed field guide entry for one species of native bird.


 

Healthy Parks, Healthy CitiesHealthy parks, healthy cities badge

Earners of this badge explore and study parks to learn about the important role of trees in forest ecosystems. They will participate in a transect-survey (studying trees along a specific path) of several forest plots and gain experience with collecting and interpreting data, use scientific tools and methods, and practice systems-thinking.


 

 

Urban EcoStewardUrban EcoSteward badge

The skills needed for this badge are generally developed long-term in our Urban EcoSteward program. To earn this badge, EcoStewards must learn how to properly use the tools needed to work in the parks. They will also master invasive plant species identification. To earn this badge, they’re required to plan and complete at least one restoration project to manage erosion, canopy loss or fragmentation, litter, and invasive species.


 

Young NaturalistYoung Naturalist badge

Earners of this badge gain experience making and recording observations in nature journals using a variety of scopes, methods and mediums. Analyzing the features of plants, animals and landscapes strengthens their ability to compare, contrast and synthesize many observations to form a conclusion. Analyzing natural change strengthens their systems thinking and ability to form assumptions and predictions.


 

Young people that participate in the City of Learning not only benefit from working with The Sprout Fund and the many civic, educational, creative, and outdoor organizations associated with this initiative, but they’ll also be connected to a larger network across the country kicking off similar digital badge programs. Through City of Learning, we hope to see that young people gaining new skills in the parks can translate that into success throughout their lives.