LEAF gives new perspective to students and teachers alike
In part one of this story we were introduced to four young women who normally live and go to school in New York and Connecticut. They are interns in a program of the Nature Conservancy, known as LEAF, or Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future. The LEAF program across the country is open to high school students both male and female, from environmentally themed schools. They spend July, as Marek Smith, program director for the Allegheny Highlands says,
“getting exposed to the day to day type of conservation work that we do here for the Nature Conservancy.” What began as a happy coincidence for this office has led to the group visiting this region each year being only female. And Marek feels it can benefit the program, as well as the young women studying here.
Smith shared more,
“Women now make up half of the national work place in the United States, and they earn more college and graduate degrees than men do, but the gender gap in science and conservation continues to persist, and to a greater degree in other professions.
“We have a unique opportunity here in the Allegheny Highlands, not only to host this group of four interns but also to really expose women to the conservation field. I’m our only male staff person here in the Warm Springs office. I have two full time female staff, and then this year we hired a female seasonal science technician who is with us. We also were joined on the water themed day with our three staff from our Aquatic Resources Trust Fund out of our Charlottesville and our Richmond offices, and all three of them were female as well.”
The Aquatic Resources Trust Fund is the branch of the Nature Conservancy that oversees wetlands restoration, and other projects in the upper James Watershed. When asked exactly what tasks the interns might be engaged in Marek Smith continued.
“They have been working with us to control non-native invasive species, they been doing trail maintenance; they spent a really great day monitoring wetlands on one of our conservation easement properties, and they also collected macroinvertebrates in the Cowpasture River to learn about water quality of one of the states most pristine watersheds.”
Throughout all of these new experiences the LEAF team was accompanied by their mentor, Julia Temple. A native of Nebraska, Julia admits she has always loved being out doors. A big part of her job is getting these young people to feel comfortable and connected there too. They are not allowed to use cell phones, and the TV in their lodging stays off. They have been hiking and kayaking, most for the first time ever.
“If you turn off screens, you’re going to turn around and look out your window. You know, you’re going get off your porch and go explore the woods and the fields around your house. I really believe that there’s beauty that can be seen anywhere you are, and it’s so important for people to appreciate and love the place where they are whether it’s New York City, or the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia, or rural Nebrasksa.”
One concern among environmental educators is, if our young people don’t feel a connection to their natural environment, than who is going to protect it? The Nature Conservancy has collected data that shows the impact the LEAF program has had on its participants. They remain a dedicated and committed group through advanced studies, and into their jobs as adults. Again Marek Smith,
“The goal of the LEAF program is really to empower the next generation of conservation leaders, and so we are always honored and enthusiastic to host these interns each year, and we get as much out of working and learning with them as we hope they do with us.”