UConn Program Joins Technology and Nature to Build Conservation Awareness

Area residents are creating 'story maps' of conservation land in Eastern Connecticut as part of UConn's Natural Resources Conservation Academy.

Female students in masks taking photos of trees with cell phones in the forst

A team of conservationists is hoping to elevate the experience even more by creating an interactive and educational story map for visitors of Eastern Connecticut Conservation District’s Milo Appley Conservation Showcase in the town of Brooklyn.

For many, spending time outdoors is a chance to escape, reconnect, and relax. A team of conservationists is hoping to elevate the experience even more by creating an interactive and educational story map for visitors of Eastern Connecticut Conservation District’s Milo Appley Conservation Showcase (MACS) in the town of Brooklyn.

Judy Rondeau, Rachael Trowbridge, and Genevieve Rondeau are participating in a Conservation Training Partnership (CTP) program, a part of UConn’s Natural Resources Conservation Academy (NRCA) that pairs high school students with an adult conservation volunteer. NRCA teams work on projects across the state to educate and raise awareness in conservation and environmental concerns. The program includes service learning, so communities and students all benefit from the projects.

Trowbridge and Genevieve Rondeau are both seniors at Lebanon Regional Agricultural Science and Technology Center at Lyman Memorial High School. Both are also interested in pursuing careers in environmental science, so they see the conservation-oriented program as a way to gain experience and learn how to use new technologies.

Judy Rondeau participated in another program offered by NRCA and jumped at the opportunity to work with students in the CTP program. She also works for the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District (ECCD) Brooklyn location, which is adjacent to the preserve.

“When the opportunity came up, I said ‘Absolutely!’,” Judy Rondeau says. “I’ve really enjoyed working with the students, I love their interest in the world and their enthusiasm, and it’s a great experience,” that creates an educational and mentoring opportunity, and also a way to help develop and raise awareness of the MACS property.

The goal of the project is to produce a “story map” of the trail network in the preserve, which totals about two miles of trails winding through a variety of habitats. This initial installment of the story map will also include bird species data.

“The property is about 80 acres of land adjacent to the extension center that was deeded to us by an individual interested in conservation,” Judy Rondeau explains. “This will be the base story map and in future projects we plan to add on and ultimately have many, many layers describing various aspects of the property. This is foundation work that we are doing right now.”

Story maps can convey a multitude of information through different storytelling strategies — including text, multimedia, and maps — to engage and inspire a broader audience. Integrating all of this information and building a story map therefore requires some technical know-how.

Genevieve Rondeau explains, “The story map will be an online, interactive type of map. We will take pictures of the various animals and areas we want to highlight. We will then pinpoint their locations on the map with short synopses of what they are and why they are of interest and people can interact with the data.”

The team started their experience with CTP in July through a virtual workshop, a first for the NRCA program, where workshops have traditionally been held in person, says Nicole Freidenfelds, CTP Program Coordinator. Freidenfelds has also been helping gather data with the team. The workshop introduced different technologies participants could use for data collection or for building story maps.

Trowbridge says, “I’ve had a really good time so far. When we were doing the original workshop over Zoom everyone was really nice, it was exciting learning about different apps and learning how to incorporate that into our project.”

Genevieve Rondeau says that, though the pandemic changed their plans, it has not diminished the excitement everyone has for the program: “It has been enlightening seeing everyone’s enthusiasm over Zoom despite the circumstances.”

The team started field work in the heat of August and have continued meeting and collecting data as the season transitions to autumn. With summer drawing to a close, each data collection outing is an opportunity to get a glimpse of birds migrating, as well as the species who are year-round Connecticut residents.

Trowbridge explains that, for their data gathering process, the team meets either in the early morning or early evening, when birds are most active.

“We go out to different flagged areas around the property to take data. We wait and listen to birds, for five minutes at each spot. It is really interesting to learn about the different birds so close to us,” she says.

The team is also getting some help from local bird expert and Audubon volunteer Aaron Bourque to help identify birds present in the preserve. The property is home to mixed hardwood forest, riparian corridors, wetlands, and fields, among other habitats, says Judy Rondeau. The variety means there’s a wide range of species present.

The team is hoping to finish the data collection process soon, so they can have a story map completed sometime early next year. Projects are presented each March at one of two regional conference events. Judy says the story map will be posted to the ECCD website and available to visitors.

“We are hoping the story map will help visitors enjoy the property even more,” she says. “They’ll be hearing and seeing different birds, and the map will help them be more aware of what is there. We are also hoping that the story map will encourage more people to use the area.”

Genevieve Rondeau adds, “The experience has been a lot of fun, I really like being outside and being able to know that I’m playing some role, even if it may be small, in conservation. Sharing what I know and what I’m learning is really great. Being able to pick a project, carry it out, and work on outreach to share what we’re doing is great. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of raising awareness of the property we’re working on.”


To explore past NRCA projects, including story maps, visit UConn CLEAR Maps and Apps for Community Conservations Projects and the NRCA Projects Page.  The Conservation Training Partnerships program is supported through an Advancing Informal STEM Learning grant (1612650) from the National Science Foundation and free to all participants.