Swaner EcoClub provides a learning environment
Club aims to get students engaged in the outdoors
Twice a month, Jennifer Groves gets to do something she enjoys more than almost anything else — teach young people about the environment.
Groves leads the Swaner EcoCenter’s EcoClub for middle school students in Park City. Through the club, which meets twice a month throughout the school year, she shows students the importance of the environment and encourages them to experience it firsthand through field trips and service projects.
What makes the club unique, however, is what Groves doesn’t do. She said the club is set up specifically to give the students the autonomy to determine what they learn. That allows them to shape their own experience and develop unique connections to the environment.
“We meet with the kids (early on) and figure out who our group is, what kinds of things they like, what they’ve done in the past and what they want to learn,” Groves said. “This year, it’s an amazing group, and they’re all experienced nature lovers with a lot of expertise. They came already with a lot of knowledge.”
So far this year, the students have built snow caves in Toll Canyon, monitored the water quality in a stream that runs through the preserve, used the bones of a fox to create a display that will be hung at Swaner and have begun planning a community service project involving elderly residents at an assisted living facility, Groves said. They’ve also spent plenty of time simply exploring Swaner’s land, getting hands on lessons about the environment that surrounds them in Summit County.
From Groves’ perspective, the program fulfills a basic need for students by providing them the opportunity to discover the world around them for themselves.
“It’s everything,” she said. “I think every student, no matter how young, once they get into the education system should have some empowerment in that way. They should have some opportunities for figuring out what they want to do and how they want to do it. But this age, in particular, they’re starting to think abstractly and starting to create their own identities and figure out their strengths and weaknesses and what they like to do.”
In giving the students a chance to explore, the program is also doing something else — it’s helping to create a generation of future leaders Groves hopes will help save the environment. She said she sees enormous potential in those who join the EcoClub to fight on the behalf of the environment in the war against climate change that threatens to reshape the planet.
“These kids seem to be so much more educated, so much more compassionate and passionate about these issues,” she said. “If you ask them what they’re interested in, time and time again they want to talk about climate change and they want to learn about water quality and air quality. Those are the issues that are really on their minds. If we can educate them about those issues, I’ll feel really good about handing off the planet to these guys — I already do.”
For their part, the students seem as enthusiastic as Groves about saving the world around them. Chloe Shewell, for instance, said participating in the club has given her a new appreciation for the environment.
“I like to come here because every single time I come here, I learn something new about the environment and what the environment is worth,” she said. “It’s just very interesting to come here and see Swaner in the different seasons.”
Ryan Bizily said he’s most passionate about animals. He enjoys learning about the various kinds of wildlife that live in the Park City area and wants to do his part to protect them.
“I just like to come help out with the environment and the animals to make sure they’re safe,” he said. “I don’t like poachers or people who poach animals all over the planet.”
Groves swelled with pride as the students rattled off their reasons for participating in the club. She said that Swaner, at its core level, exists precisely to get people like them involved.
“That’s my passion in life, is to do just that,” she said. “And that’s our mission at Swaner — to connect people with the environment. We know that, if people don’t appreciate the environment or feel a connection with the environment, then they’re not apt to save it or protect it or get involved.”
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The Park City Board of Education is on track to place a bond on the ballot this fall to improve district facilities. The top priorities would be to put ninth grade in the high school, eighth grade in the middle school and to augment preschool offerings by expanding elementary schools.