Lessons learned through environmental outreach

We are very excited to welcome Carolyn Bonta to the blog this week. Carolyn is the manager of the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (ELEEC) and finishes off our outreach themed month with some lessons learned through environmental outreach. For more about Carolyn and the ELEEC check out the end of this post.

The outdoors has always been my playground; living components of the natural word, my teachers.  Thus, it was no surprise that I pursued studies in field ecology through university and subsequent contract jobs.

It’s been a long time since I did fieldwork full-time to scrape out a meager living, but while the past decade directed my career along other paths, I continued to return to my passion of field biology in various volunteer roles as a naturalist, educator and outdoor trip leader.  Pointing out interesting species, interactions and behaviours that one might overlook, sharing cool facts about animal and plant life, and helping to foster an appreciation of our environment came naturally to me.

Two years ago, I was hired to manage the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (ELEEC), the new public outreach arm of the Queen’s University Biological Station.  Being the only dedicated staff for this facility, my duties include everything from financials to maintenance to marketing and – of course – designing and delivering the ELEEC’s public and high school outreach programs.  My audiences range from skilled naturalists to casual observers of nature to indifferent teenagers.  In this role, I’ve learned a few things from watching others teach, absorbing the excitement of those partaking in a new discovery, and seeing the response of others to my teaching.  Here are the top five lessons learned:

Lesson #1:  There is value in shock, surprise and the unexpected.  Make your teaching style stand out.

Immediately prior to my first day of work, I was invited to ELEEC to watch QUBS staff deliver outreach programming to a small class of Grade 12 students from the Environmental Leadership Focus Program at Bayridge High School.  What a great program!  The students set up a birding mist net and captured a hormonally territorial Eastern Towhee using playback calls, seined the waterfront for fish, and explored other means of sampling biodiversity.  Upon cleanup, we enlisted the students’ assistance.  As chest waders were loaded in the back of the truck, shrieks rang out when a dead groundhog was discovered in the box.  My co-worker, Mark, picked it up and began to point out the various physical adaptations that groundhogs have for digging burrows, regulating body temperature, and feeding.  “What do groundhogs eat?” one student asked.  Pulling a knife from his pocket, Mark began to slice open the rodent’s belly in front of a horrified crowd.  “They eat grass” he explained, the slightest hint of exasperation in his voice as he held out the stomach contents: “It’s just digested salad.”  I’m pretty sure those students won’t soon forget what groundhogs eat.

Lesson #2: Everything in nature is worth a closer look, even if you’ve seen it a hundred times.

Many of us take our natural surroundings for granted, not always pausing to take a second glance at the life around us.  I was reminded of this one summer, after having tasked an ELEEC Intern to capture some butterflies.  We were heading off to a community festival and thought it would be nice to have live animals to accompany our displays of pinned specimens.  So, Intern disappeared with an insect net, proudly returning to announce that she had caught a butterfly!  But, peering closely at her catch, “it’s kind of strange-looking”, she added, flipping through Butterflies of the Kingston Area in an effort to identify the species.   “Uhhhhh… use the Bugs of Ontario field guide instead,” I suggested.  Fooled by its resemblance to a Mourning Cloak butterfly, Intern had captured a Road Duster… grasshopper.  Needless to say, we brought the Road Duster, also called Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina), to the festival to teach others about this common – yet often overlooked – butterfly mimic.

photo of a carolina locust, looks like a butterfly

Photo: Barbara Taylor, Muskoka Field Naturalists

Lesson #3:  Nature isn’t always nice.  Get used to it.

The ELEEC offers a Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems program that puts visiting high school students in chest waders and sends them into Elbow Lake to seine for fish and macroinvertebrates.   One group was pleased to have caught a diversity of fish, as well as several species of invertebrate.  Upon dropping a particularly large beetle into the aquarium of specimens, students were horrified as the beetle immediately targeted a small perch, injected its proboscis and sent the fish belly-up.  Oh wonderful teachable moment!!  The Giant Water Bug (family Belistomatidae) preys on small fish, amphibians and crustaceans, injecting its catch with digestive enzymes that liquefy the animal’s insides; the Giant Water Bug then re-inserts its proboscis and enjoys a healthy protein shake.  Yum!

Photo: Peter Galbraith, Leahurst College

Photo: Peter Galbraith, Leahurst College

Lesson #4:  Seek new knowledge from people of all ages.

While leading a late fall hike for a local outdoors club, we paused to observe a fairly large spider with a brilliant orange abdomen.  Nobody in the group was able to identify this beautiful arachnid, and one member photographed it, asking me to find out what it was.  Well, I knew just the person to ask:  My co-worker’s 8-year-old son, Jesse – entomologist extraordinaire!

Armed with a photo of the mystery spider, Todd went home to his son.  The next day, I inquired “Did you ask Jesse about the spider?”

“Yup”, said Todd, rolling his eyes and mimicking Jesse’s voice, “it’s an orb weaver, dad.  Duh.

I threw my hands up in exasperation.  “Of course!   How did I not know that?”  Certainly this will be the last time that I didn’t recognize a Marbled Orb Weaver, Araneous marmoreus.

Photo: Seabrooke Leckie, seabrookeleckie.com

Photo: Seabrooke Leckie, seabrookeleckie.com

Lesson #5:  Nature affects everyone, no matter how diverse their background.

A specimen in the hand adds so much value to learning.  At a recent awards ceremony to accept outreach funding, grant recipients were invited to do a 10-second “Shout Out” to seek non-monetary support from other attendees.  What could ELEEC possibly ask for from a diverse group that included primarily artists, gardeners, and social service organizations?  Since QUBS is always looking to expand our teaching collection, and I figured everyone in the group has encountered at least one of the billions of birds killed annually in North America by road or window collisions, my Shout Out asked for just that: “Bring us dead birds!” I cried, holding up a freeze-dried American Robin to a mixed response of stunned silence, startled gasps and bursts of laughter.  Not only did the surprise factor catch the audience’s attention, but we have already received some specimens, including a juvenile Yellow Warbler and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  Sometimes all it takes to notice nature is a reminder.

Photo: Community Foundation for Kingston and Area

Photo: Community Foundation for Kingston and Area

Carolyn Bonta completed an M.Sc. in Zoology and spent seven glorious years as an independent biological consultant in the Kingston area, followed by nine years of protected areas planning with Ontario Parks behind a desk.  Sanity, natural history knowledge and field skills were maintained during this time through involvement in numerous volunteer projects, most notably at Frontenac Provincial Park.  She now shares her knowledge of local biodiversity through outreach programming at the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre, http://elbowlakecentre.ca.

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