Connecting Students to Something Bigger than Themselves: an Interview with Nina Suzuki of Center for Land-Based Learning

In a three-part series, the Edible Schoolyard Project interviews the directors of sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship programs at Center for Land-Based Learning.

The first interview with Nina Suzuki, Program Director of Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship (SLEWS), addresses the value of working with high school students and the long-term goals of Center for Land-based Learning. SLEWS engages California high school students in habitat restoration projects with a focus on classroom learning, leadership development, and hands-on environmental impact.

An introduction from Nina Suzuki

I was introduced to the Center for Land-Based Learning (CLBL) while I was studying Landscape Architecture and Landscape Restoration at UC Davis. For one of my classes, I was teamed up with CLBL and Audubon California to develop a farm conservation plan for their headquarters at the Farm on Putah Creek. Through that project I got to know the organization and staff. I stayed in touch and was really excited when they had an opening for the Sacramento Valley SLEWS Coordinator position. In this position, I would be able to plan and participate in habitat restoration (with lots of partners) while facilitating student engagement and learning in the process.

Edible Schoolyard Project: How did this program come about? Did it emerge from a need or a desire within the community?

NS: The SLEWS program emerged from our existing experience, a need, and a partnership. Our first program, FARMS Leadership, gave us experience working with teachers to plan year-long, field trip based programs for high school youth. The need came from landowners, mainly farmers and ranchers, who were interested in reintroducing native habitat on their property but didn’t have the expertise or manpower to plan or install such a project. And the partnership was with Audubon California, whose Landowner Stewardship Program was working with these landowners to plan and implement habitat projects, but wanted to include an educational component.

ESYP: Who is your target community and how large is it?

NS: We target high school students, primarily sophomores, for the SLEWS Program. About 700 students participate in the SLEWS program each year from our four SLEWS regions: Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley, Napa, and Sonoma. SLEWS also recruits and trains about 70 natural resource professionals and college students as mentors each year. The program offers them the opportunity to share their knowledge with high school students and gain experience in environmental education and habitat restoration. They help SLEWS maintain a 5:1 adult-to-student ratio to ensure high quality experiences and restoration work, lead the same team of students for all their field days, and connect high school youth to related internships, majors, and careers.

ESYP: Why does SLEWS work with high school age children? What is the value of engaging high school students in habitat restoration?

NS: There are very few experiential programs for high school students. Additionally, high school students are at the time in their lives when they are thinking about college majors and careers. The SLEWS program connects high school students with graduate students and natural resource professionals, and teaches skills that a wildlife biologist or habitat restoration planner or water quality engineer would use every day. We hope to inspire these students to explore natural resource and agriculture careers and infuse those career fields with highly motivated, ethnically diverse young people. Another value of the SLEWS program is that the concepts we explore in SLEWS are in line with the California state science standards for high school biology. SLEWS is a way to teach those concepts in a real world, local setting that students connect with and understand.

ESYP: How is the program structured?

NS: Students participate in SLEWS for the length of their school year. SLEWS coordinators meet with the teacher and project team to develop the plan for the year including restoration tasks and learning activities that connect to classroom curriculum. The coordinator provides an in-class watershed presentation to prepare students for their field experience. Students make three to five, all day field trips to their adopted restoration project. The trips are spread out throughout the year, allowing for a variety of activities (since many are seasonal) and for students to develop a connection to their site. Most of the student training happens on-site by our staff, restoration partners, and mentors – although we also take advantage of the opportunity to teach in the classroom to prepare students before coming out into the field. Each field day includes team building, training, restoration work, science learning, and reflection elements.

ESYP: What are the most popular activities and projects?

NS: The most popular activity is planting trees and shrubs. There is a great sense of accomplishment and camaraderie when you get together with a group of friends and plant 300 trees in two hours. Students tell us, “The best part is looking back and being able to see what you’ve done, that you’ve made a difference.”

ESYP: How do you pick your restoration sites?

NS: We use a rubric of criteria when we’re looking at a new site. The primary considerations are: proximity to the school and coordinator, potential for long term success, scale of the project, accessibility, ecological significance, diversity of tasks, and involvement of the landowner and restoration planner.

ESYP: How is the program funded?

NS: SLEWS is funded primarily through our restoration partners and landowners who contract with Center for Land-Based Learning to include SLEWS students in the implementation of their restoration projects. We are also supported by grants from state agencies, local businesses, and foundations.

ESYP: Are there improvements that you wish to make to the programming?

NS: We are always revising and developing new elements of the program with feedback from our participants and partners. From surveys and other student and teacher feedback, we learned that students got really excited about wildlife. So we now include more wildlife lessons that connect to the restoration work students are doing. We are building up our kit of demonstration materials like example mammal tracks, skulls, and skins. Right now we are borrowing museum specimens, but eventually we’d like to have our own set of materials.

We’re also always trying to find new ways of connecting these learning experiences back to students’ communities, and encouraging them to take action back at home to improve their local environment. We recently received a small grant from Cornell’s Celebrate Urban Birds program to support Grant High School’s student garden in North Sacramento, provide native plants for birds in an urban setting, and have students gather data on urban birds as part of a citizen science program of Cornell. These students were planting native habitat on a ranch in the foothills of the Coast Range for their SLEWS project, and then they got to go back to their school and plant native plants to support birds right in their backyard. We would like to be able to do more of these “Community Action Projects” with our SLEWS classes, but it takes a significant amount of planning and time from the teachers and our staff to make a meaningful project happen.

ESYP: How do you measure success?

NS: We evaluate success with students in the SLEWS program by tracking participation, engagement at field days, responses to written prompts at field days, and the pre- and post-program survey. The Center for Land-Based Learning has worked extensively with faculty at the UC Davis School of Education to develop effective evaluation methods for our programs. The pre- and post-surveys were developed in collaboration with the UC Davis School of Education to assess changes in student knowledge, attitudes, and actions over the course of the school year. The survey also captures student activities in their own communities, interest in post-secondary education and/or careers in environmental science, and resource conservation – as well as interest in similar programs in the future.

After each field day we evaluate the restoration and education accomplishments of the day as well as student engagement with input from the project partners and teachers. This includes student quotes that demonstrate student learning and attitudes toward the environment. Key indicators include: developing a connection to the land, seeing their potential to affect positive change and understanding the need for and effects of restoration. We record this information in our Coordinator Field Day Assessment, a tool CLBL used in a three-year research study with UC Davis to evaluate effective experiential programming.

ESYP: What do you find is the greatest value of land-based learning?

NS: It amplifies student learning, brings concepts to life, makes learning real and meaningful. It connects students to something bigger than themselves and opens them to a new world of careers and interests. Most of the students in our programs are from urban schools, and most of them have never set foot in a creek or put their hands in soil. I think the beauty of our programs is that they work on so many levels of engagement. They start at the very basic level of getting people outside and exploring the wonders of nature. They progress to teaching science, inspiring students to take positive action back in their own communities, and they launch them on paths of higher learning. These experiences are relevant to all students even if they don’t want a career in wildlife biology or resource conservation – we are all invested in clean water, air, and healthy food.

 

Originally published on the Edible Schoolyard Project

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