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UConn Recruits Teens to Spark Interest in Conservation

David DesRoches
Amanda Hernandez points out identifying characteristics on a pumkinseed sunfish.

It was a muggy and overcast Thursday morning as John Volinled me through patches of tall milkweed and wild raspberries. 

We were bushwhacking our way to the Fenton River in the University of Connecticut Forest to meet up with a group of high school students. Volin heads the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at UConn. 

We spooked a beautiful bird as soon as we walk in, but technology got in the way. 

"Right here is a new beaver dam that they've come in... Oh look, a great blue," he said. As he pointed out the great blue heron, his phone rang, drowning out the sounds of crickets and flapping wings. 

"That's you," he said to me, laughing. "You're calling me."

An accidental dial. We can't escape disruptive technology, even though part of the reason we've come here. is to disrupt technology with a little nature. 

Credit WNPR/David DesRoches
Students help gather a sample of fish from the Fenton River.

We pushed on, raising our arms to avoid stinging nettles and stopping occasionally to listen for people. We soon spotted a group of three high schoolers standing waist deep in dark-colored water, with huge smiles on their faces.

They're holding a small plastic container filled with water. A five-inch long pumpkinseen sunfish swims inside.

"We learned that it's mouth shape is different because it really doesn't eat the same way as other fish. So it's more up there, so it doesn't open up from the bottom as much," said Amanda Hernadez, a 16-year-old from Bridgeport.

"I forgot what the word is, but they can live in a river, or in like a lake," said Laura Nelson from Manchester.

They're both high school students taking part in the Natural Resources Conservation Academy. It's an intensive, one-week program where they stay at UConn'sStorrs campus learning about everything from forest ecology to aquatic biology.

Amanda Hernandez said she comes from a very urban area.

"This is like, something I never see in my life," she said. "All I ever see are sidewalks, factories, and like cars. And this is just like amazing for me. This is like a Narnia. I thought this was fake, I see it in the movies, and I'm just like, 'Where is that?'"

And that's the idea, said UConn's Volin. He's been wanting to do a program like this since he was a professor in Florida. One day he took students there on a field trip to explore a mangrove.

"The students were really scared of the little lizards that were walking around," Volin said. "And I remember thinking, you know, that we're actually in trouble. If the younger generation doesn't understand the environment, doesn't appreciate it, that's not going to bode well for any of us."

This is the fifth year of UConn's conservation academy. There are 24 teenagers in the program, and after seven months, they'll be coming back to the campus to present a project they'll develop in their home towns.

Amanda Hernandez said she'll be making a green roof to see how well it reduces storm-water runoff. Green roofs are basically gardens on top of buildings that reduce runoff and provide insulation.

Credit University of Connecticut

Volin said many of his students end up pursuing a field related to conservation or the environment.

"We're getting them involved in their own community, and they can actually be involved in the environmental solution process," Volin said. "And that has been really rewarding."

He said the program doesn't push specific environmental issues for the students to pursue. The idea is to help them find out what matters to them, and their communities. And to get them excited about nature.

Students learn all sorts of skills, including how to track tagged animals using radio telemetry. The machine beeps louder when the antennae is pointed in the direction of the animal. After walking around for about 10 minutes, Jalyn Johnson spotted something near a log.

It's a fake turtle, but it looked pretty real. Volin said it's these moments of discovery that keep the kids hooked -- even if what they find isn't exactly what they were looking for.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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