Education & Conservation: Partnering Local Schools and Conservation Commissions

Barbara Richter, NH Association of Conservation Commissions

In today’s high tech world, children are too often disconnected from nature and have little experience with their natural environment.  Schools do not have adequate support or experience to teach environmental subjects or connect students to local natural areas.

To counteract this trend, the New Hampshire Association of Conservation Commissions (NHACC) has developed a school partnership program to connect educators and elementary schools in an effort to integrate environmental education and local conservation.  Conservation commissions around the state are encouraging children to enjoy the outdoors and cultivating the next generation of environmental stewards by partnering with local schools.

During the fall of 2016, the Dover Opens Land Committee collaborated with the Woodman Park Elementary School to establish a bird feeder watch program; encouraging students to become scientists while bird watching. Kristen Murphy of Dover Open Lands, and fourth grade teacher, Jill Sears, designed the program to teach the scientific method to students while they learn about birds and habitat. Students observed bird feeders in three different locations and learned about species identification, habitat and data collection. Through observations it was concluded that the bird feeder in the wooded location had the most visitors and the feeder near a noisy road had the least amount of species. This study helped students to better understand how habitat impacts animals making the students more aware of the role of conservation and environmental concerns in their community.

Students in Londonderry explore and collect data on the habitats in their schoolyard. (Photos by Beth Haarlander)

Another successful partnership involved the Londonderry Conservation Commission and the North Londonderry Elementary School. The goal of this after-school program was to encourage students to learn about the treasures in the forest out on the school’s Nutfield trail. Students took part in an after-school nature program led by teacher Beth Haarlander, traipsing along a wooded trail that runs behind the school while learning all about animals, tracks, trees, vernal pools and the forest. A group of about 20 students ventured into the woods each week, experiencing and enjoying nature.  Haarlander said her main goal was to teach children all about the treasures that are found in the forest while helping them become ambassadors to teach their peers about the school's outside world. The program was so successful it had a waiting list for each session.  At the end of the school year, the students who participated in the afterschool program presented a live performance of their adventures to encourage others to get out and enjoy the Nutfield trail.

Keys to Success
After the school programs were completed, NHACC coordinated a follow up session with the teachers and commission members to gather feedback on the projects and evaluate what was successful and what needed improvement.  The group identified several keys to success that helped commissions and schools develop partnerships. The first component of success was to be open minded and flexible.  Successful projects can be simple or complex but find something that inspires the group as a whole.  Create excitement by supporting engaging opportunities that provide something for the kids to look forward to.  While it is easy to focus on the kid’s excitement, it is also important to establish mutual benefits so that the process and final outcomes have benefits to the community and not just the school.  Look outside the box for supplies and donated items from business and foundations.  Make sure you start the project with talented volunteers who have enough relevant experience and who are willing to remain working with schools through the duration of the project.  Get the word out; use press and social media to promote your success.  Finally, celebrate your success with others including teachers, parents, commission and other board members.  Make the event fun for all ages and host a special celebration to complete the project.

Thanks to the Davis Conservation Foundation and Horne Family Foundation for supporting this program to help students gain experience and appreciation of nature and better understand the need to conserve natural resources.