The graduate students in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment come from places such as the desert landscape of New Mexico, the grazing pastureland of central Virginia, and the urban settings of northern Virginia. Some even hail from different countries.
Despite their many geographical and cultural differences, they share several commonalities: a love of wildlife, a passion for conservation, and a desire to teach others about the importance of both.
This fall, a group of graduate students turned those desires into community outreach through the creation of the Wildlife Viewing Club, a student-run project dedicated to promoting the importance of careers in conservation to the next generation by engaging elementary school children through hands-on learning.
The Hokies’ willingness to reach out to younger people, specifically fifth graders at Christiansburg Elementary School, fits nicely with the university’s motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) and brought the college another cause for celebration in October, the month designated by the university to celebrate the college’s role in Virginia Tech’s sesquicentennial.
“I wanted to start the club because I didn’t know about wildlife until I was a sophomore in college. I didn’t know that this was a field that you could pursue,” said Brogan Holcombe, a Goochland County, Virginia, native who is a pursuing a master’s degree in fish and wildlife conservation and is the recipient of the Burd S. McGinnes Fellowship.
Holcombe was part of a group of graduate students who started the club last spring. Over the summer, the club received grant money to expand its objectives. Associate Professor Ashley Dayer of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation identified the funding opportunity and helped the students secure a $10,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and its Virginia Wildlife Grant Program, which focuses on introducing wildlife and the outdoors to more underrepresented groups. Dayer has experience working with the state in developing a statewide 10-year plan for wildlife viewing, with a primary goal of expanding who the agency serves and making opportunities more inclusive.
The Virginia Tech contingent received the funds in part because the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation’s Graduate Student Association started a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee a few years ago. Committee members and graduate students had been discussing an after-school program designed to engage underrepresented young people, especially people with disabilities and those with financial needs. Their goals fit perfectly with the department’s grant requirements.
“I helped the graduate students get the grant together and they submitted it, and they were successful,” Dayer said. “I help with the financial management for the project and such, but this is their baby. They’re doing such an awesome job of it. It’s energizing to see grad students get this opportunity to run an outreach program and to apply for and manage a grant — opportunities that they often don’t have, especially at the master’s level — and it’s great to be able to showcase Virginia Tech amongst the list of organizations that received funding.”
Approximately 15 to 20 fish and wildlife conservation graduate students help with the club, which engaged 20 fifth graders from Christiansburg Elementary School every Tuesday after school until Thanksgiving. The club used most of its grant money to hire Amelia Schmidt, an animal and poultry sciences major in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, to develop the club’s curricula.
Schmidt, who has hosted reading seminars in the Honors College and taught creative writing as a high school volunteer, was attracted to the position because she wanted to educate those like her. She has foot drop and wears a brace, which makes hiking or navigating certain outdoor areas a challenge.
“I thought it might be fun to teach elementary school students about something I’m passionate about, and the whole equity and inclusion part of it is important to me,” Schmidt said. “I’m disabled, so I thought that was important, just from personal experience. I know it can be difficult to get involved with some of that stuff, like wildlife viewing, just due to disabilities.”
Schmidt, who sought input from the Disability Alliance and Caucus and the LGTBQ+ Resource Center when developing the curricula, split the syllabus into sections on wildlife, focusing on fish, birds, mammals, and reptiles and amphibians, and she created approximately 15 lesson plans. Holcombe came up with a “Scientist Shoutout” in which she spotlighted a scientist from an underrepresented background with the purpose of showing students from similar backgrounds that they, too, can enjoy a successful career in fields related to natural resources and the environment.
Each lesson consisted of several hands-on student opportunities, which comprised the bulk of the lesson materials. The graduate students then closed the lessons with a recap and takeaways.
“I did a literature review this summer on environmental education, and specifically how to get people from diverse backgrounds or underrepresented backgrounds involved,” Schmidt said. “One thing I kept reading about was the importance of experiential learning. Younger children want to be involved in the work, as opposed to sitting and listening to us lecture to them, and our subject material lends itself to that. For example, we can show them photos of birds, but identifying birds with binoculars is more appealing to the students. This is about hands-on application rather than giving out more information.”
Holcombe also witnessed the students’ eagerness to learn more about wildlife and the outdoors and saw the value of supplying an outlet for their curiosity and questions. “I definitely think that they all had a huge interest in it,” she said of the students’ reactions. “I know if I was in an elementary school and there was a wildlife club, I’d be like, ‘This is so cool. I want to do this.’”
In addition to exposing the elementary students to conservation careers and increasing their interest in wildlife, the club enhanced the professional development of the graduate students, as they rotated between teaching the weekly lessons and assisting with administrative tasks like recruiting and hiring an undergrad to develop and administer a budget.
“This has definitely been the most meaningful program I’ve been involved with as a master’s student,” said Emily Sinkular, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, native who is a second year master’s student. “The ability to bring this to kids who might not have ever gone to a nature program or nature talk before really helps remind me of how I started in this field. I was a little kid who would go to these programs and being able to grow up and now be the person leading a program — that makes me excited to think maybe someone will go into this field as well. And that will be because of the work all of us did here to help expose them to it at a young age.”
At the conclusion of the semester, the graduate students plan to send their lesson plans and the club’s organization structure to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, along with the Virginia Environmental Education Association. The hope is that their work becomes a template for regional and statewide agencies across the commonwealth.
So far, the numbers have been validating their work’s success. The graduate students capped the club’s membership to 20 fifth graders but had a lengthy waitlist of others who are interested. They hope to expand their capacity during the spring semester.
“In conservation, you go into it because you love nature or something’s really meaningful to you, or you want to be able to spread it to more people,” Sinkular said. “I love my career field and the fact that I can help show children how awesome it is, and maybe get them excited about it, really makes me happy.”
– Krista Timney