Reflecting on the Impact of Conservation Training Partnerships

While UConn’s unique Conservation Training Partnerships program has concluded its five-year run, the environmental projects it inspired and relationships it established continue to support Connecticut communities

While UConn’s unique Conservation Training Partnerships program has concluded its five-year run, the environmental projects it inspired and relationships it established continue to support Connecticut communities ()

Established in 2017, Conservation Training Partnerships (CTP) brought teens and adult volunteers together for an experiential learning experience. By combining conservation science with innovative technology, the program spurred intergenerational teams to environmental action throughout Connecticut. Although the program was retired this spring due to funding, its effects on local communities and its participants continue to resonate through service learning projects and enduring relationships.

CTP was a free program funded by the National Science Foundation and offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Academy (NRCA), a partnership among many UConn collaborators, including the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, and the Center for Land Use Education and Research, both of which are part of the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources and UConn Extension, as well as the Neag School of Education. The CTP program engaged 266 participants, including 118 adults and 148 teens, over five years. Teams completed a total of 81 community conservation projects across the state of Connecticut.

In the CTP program, a high school student paired with an adult in their community to form an intergenerational team. UConn educators hosted a two-day workshop in the summer to teach teams conservation science and train participants in the use of geospatial tools for mapping, and data collection to study biodiversity, land and water quality, and more, through apps available on a smartphone. Participants then ventured into the field to practice using these technologies.

At the conclusion of the workshop session, teams considered the many ways they could apply their learning by designing and implementing an environmental action project in their home community. These projects focus on different aspects of conservation, including awareness and access to outdoor spaces through trail mapping, assessing flora and fauna, reducing waste by promoting composting and recycling, and creating and restoring habitat, among other areas. UConn educators help guide and mentor participants as they work on their conservation initiatives.

Keeping Partnerships Alive

Participant teams celebrate their projects at a conference in the spring, where they present their work as a research poster, story map, or video.

While the gathering marks the end of that year’s program, participants often maintain the relationship beyond the initial partnership or continue to find ways to expand or promote their work and passion for conservation.

“CTP was kind of that opening door to all these different opportunities to explore conservation and do field research as a student,” says Melinda Lu, a high school student in the 2019-2020 CTP cohort.

Lu teamed up with Christin Arnini, a retired teacher and land trust volunteer, and together they studied the role beavers play in the wetland ecosystem at Mendell’s Folly, a 125-acre tract of the Bethany Land Trust.

“We used data and trail footage to show the effects of beavers on the wetlands and how important they are,” explains Lu.

They created a story map of their work, which went on to receive an award from the 2020 Esri User Conference Student Map Competition and earned first place for Lu in the CT Maps Competition.

“I have remained in contact with Christin. We still go on trail hikes together and last summer started going to Mendell’s Folly again and taking hikes with the Bethany Land Trust and their trailblazers.”

Several CTP teams have worked with conservation land trust volunteers focused on preserving and protecting natural spaces that are open to the public to enjoy and explore.

Expanding the Trail Experience

The technology training CTP participants receive can also lead them to create virtual experiences for those unable to hike trails as Joy VanderLek, a volunteer with the Cheshire Land Trust, and her partner Nicholas Motmans produced on the Trust’s Ives Farm trail using a Google 360 camera. Motmans walked the trails and recorded them with the camera mounted to a helmet. They worked together as part of the 2018-2019 CTP cohort.

“It was a network of trails that had fallen into disrepair, so what we wanted to do was set a few goals for stewardship,” says VanderLek. “One of which was to clear the trails, maintain them, and get the public back on the trails again. We also wanted to create a trail map so people would know where they were, and we wanted to take video of the trails, so that those folks who couldn’t hike the trails could at least see what we’ve done and how beautiful the woodland trails are.”

VanderLek and Montmans continued to work with the Cheshire Land Trust after the project was completed. Similar to Lu and Arnini, the team’s partnership continued and even expanded.

“Nick and his family and I still keep in touch. We’ve done lots of projects here in town for some of the non-profits I’m involved in, including the Cheshire Pollinator Pathway. And now that Nick is in school and away at college, his mom and his dad continue to help me out with different non-profit work that I’m doing,” says VanderLek.

CTP participants hope their projects will inspire others to get involved in conservation efforts and ultimately remind the public about the beautiful natural spaces all around them.

While projects are focused on the public good they bring, they often evolve from personal aspirations and can serve as a reminder that it is never too late to get involved and complete a goal. This motivated Jim Trail, the oldest CTP participant, to volunteer and share his knowledge of the trails on the state-owned land abutting the Seabury Active Life Plan Community in Bloomfield. Trail is a long-time member of Seabury’s Trails Committee and had sought permission to build trails on the property in the mid-2000s.

“It dawned on me that I was the only person left from the original Seabury Trails Committee that was active and, if I wanted to preserve the story, this was the best route possible for doing it,” says Trail.

Trail teamed up with Ethan Morander, a student in a nearby high school studying agriculture. Together they worked on a story map with Morander transcribing details Trail recounted about the land and how the creation of the trails took shape as part of the 2021-2022 CTP cohort.

“We only had time for the Wildwoods Trail this year, but there’s a Campus Trail that goes all across Seabury that would be cool to map out as well,” says Morander. “I’d love to see somebody pick up where I left off or add to it.”

Funding for the CTP program was supported through the National Science Foundation Advancing Informal STEM Learning program under Grant No. 1612650. A list of projects can be found on the NRCA website.


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