By Catherine Bartlett and Amy Orchard
New challenges brought new opportunities for a cohort of teen volunteers at the Desert Museum. Due to COVID-19, in the spring of 2020 the Museum made the safe decision to pause all volunteer work which included having Junior Docents on grounds. The decision felt heartbreaking until the Education Team found a way to creatively pivot and keep the group active in a meaningful way.
Junior Docents are teen volunteers who engage with Museum guests, sharing natural history and conservation stories. Junior Docents are trained to help visitors at the Museum and at community events better understand, appreciate, and live in harmony with the Sonoran Desert Region.
Through generous support from the National Forest Foundation, the Forest Service, the Arizona Game and Fish Heritage Fund, the Arconic Foundation, and the Rossetter Foundation, the Earth Camp Conservation Stewards program is continuing and the opportunity was offered to the Junior Docents!
While not all joined (graduating and going to college among the reasons), 21 students remained. Following a caravan car parade and Zoom graduation, the Junior Docents began their participatory and experiential year as Earth Campers.
The purpose of Earth Camp is to engage urban high school students from Tucson, AZ with the mission and the work of the National Forests via experiential learning in the Coronado National Forest and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. They will participate in a year-long stewardship-focused program, including fieldwork, career mentoring and team-developed conservation projects.
During the program, they will build upon their previous knowledge as Junior Docents and continue to learn about the natural history of the Sonoran Desert and Sky Island forests, the history and purpose of the US Forest Service, and participate in stewardship projects on the Coronado National Forest with the Arizona Conservation Corps.
Led by Amy Orchard, Education Specialist, and Jesús García, Research Associate, the 2020-2021 Cohort will explore four themes: Biosciences (with an emphasis on biodiversity), Ethnoecology, Engineering (with an emphasis on biomimicry) and Science Communication.
In October 2020, the Earth Campers kicked off the program with a virtual meeting where they were introduced to the concept of biodiversity, its importance, and its abundance here in the Sonoran Desert region. They also celebrated the diversity amongst themselves by sharing with the group a community they belong to, a value they have learned from that community, and how they’d like to apply it to Earth Camp. For example, Marissa K. shared that being a part of Model United Nations gave her the opportunity to argue the ideas of others even when she herself didn’t agree with the viewpoint, which allows her to better understand people.
In October and November, Earth Campers enjoyed two in-person experiences at the Desert Museum and met with staff members from both the Arizona Conservation Corps and the Forest Service.
“The Arizona Conservation Corps is a program dedicated to doing physical projects that help people be part of nature without a detriment to either. This includes the physical work of making national forests and parks accessible, and making sure they’re accessible in a way that doesn’t damage the ecosystem.”Kaia s.
They were introduced to stewardship priorities and activities in the Coronado National Forest, learned about future career opportunities, and met scientists. Then students were coached on developing individual research, stewardship, and biodiversity collections, which they will pursue throughout the year. Projects include wildlife observations using camera traps, creating a native foods recipe book, time lapse photography of the Mt Lemmon Big Horn fire area, and making photo collections of living flora and fauna in the Sonoran Desert. The results of these investigations will be communicated via photo essays, blogs, or other media at the end of the program year.
The Desert Museum offered a perfect venue to collect specimens and knowledge for their projects as they were able to meet with staff and collect plant parts, minerals, and animal photos behind the scenes.
Thus far, the Earth Campers have participated in two Virtual Experiences and two in-person experiences in the Biosciences quarter. When asked what they’ve learned or what’s resonated so far, they say:
“I have learned to be very flexible. Things won’t always work out the way you want them to so being flexible is key to a good mindset and attitude.” – Emi L.
“I have learned to observe and look at details. It helps contribute to the EC experience because it helps me look at things in detail and observe the things that are around me.” – Emmeline C.
“I feel like I’ve acknowledged my passion for a great variety of nature related subjects a bit more and the enthusiasm I have to learn and be active. It makes the Earth Camp experience extra fulfilling.” – Vanessa W.