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Explore and Soar: Birding to Change the World Gets Kids and Their College Mentors into the Woods

January 22, 2017
in Kids

After classes end one Wednesday afternoon, a gaggle of students bolts across the playground at J.J. Flynn Elementary School and plunges into the woods, heading toward the Burlington Bike Path. Once a week for their after-school program, these fourth and fifth graders, accompanied by college-age mentors from the University of Vermont, walk a mile from their New North End school to Derway Island, a natural area near the mouth of the Winooski River. The group is out bird-watching, but the kids make such a racket along the way — swinging sticks, yelling to friends, tossing around tennis balls — that's it's hard to imagine they'll see any wildlife at all. Yet less than 10 minutes into their walk, the kids and their "co-explorers" — as their mentors from UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources are called — suddenly shush each other, scan the woods with binoculars and point. A kid has spotted a large brown-and-white barred owl perched on a tree limb about 40 feet up, a sighting even experienced birders in the group say is impressive. After a few minutes, the owl flies off and the kids resume their noisy trek, stopping next at a wooden railing along the bike path that overlooks Lake Champlain. There, Nathaniel Sharp, a UVM junior who's majoring in wildlife biology, points out other bird species to the kids, including his "birding buddy," Colby, a towheaded 9-year-old whose T-shirt reads, "I'm just here for the snacks." "There's a white-breasted nuthatch up there," Sharp shouts. "And we've got some ducks over there and ... Oh, look! Snow buntings! See that flock?" The kids reply with a chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" as the birds sail by. Sharp, the group's unofficial ornithologist, says he's been birding since he was Colby's age. In 2013, he was on the first high school team to win New Jersey's annual World Series of Birding. Notwithstanding Sharp's avian acumen, many of the wildlife sightings these co-explorers make are new to the grade-schoolers and college students alike. The two groups learn from each other, which is why UVM lecturer Trish O'Kane brought them together. "A lot of these college students had never seen an owl, and a little boy just taught them that," she says. "Now, that's really cool!" O'Kane is the creator and instructor of Birding to Change the World, an environmental justice course that gets children and their college mentors exploring the outdoors together. The mentors are her students. First taught at UVM when O'Kane arrived a year ago — she previously taught the class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — the service-learning course aims to reverse an alarming national trend: Children are spending remarkably less time in nature than did previous generations, resulting in physical and emotional deficiencies that child advocacy expert Richard Louv has dubbed "nature-deficit disorder." NDD isn't a clinically recognized mental diagnosis. But as Louv posits in his book Last Child in the Woods — a required text in O'Kane's course — children who lack regular exposure to nature are more prone to anxiety, depression, obesity and attention disorders, and they also exhibit limited respect for their natural surroundings. Each semester, O'Kane handpicks 18 UVM students to take her capstone course. As she explains, she not only wants students with solid grades and relevant majors, but also those who are responsible enough to mentor a child and show up every week. Most are seniors in UVM's environmental sciences or environmental studies programs, though O'Kane has also accepted outdoor education, recreation and tourism majors. Next, O'Kane pairs each college student with a fourth or fifth grader, all of whom are enrolled in Flynn's after-school program. There's no cost to the school kids' families beyond the normal after-school fees. What criteria does she use to match mentor and mentee? O'Kane says she asks each to choose which animal they'd like to be. She then pairs them by animal species: big cats with big cats, raptors with raptors, reptiles with reptiles, and so on. "I call it 'Birding to Change the World,' but the truth is, we go with...

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