Wearing camouflage rubber hip waders offset by a red and blue life jacket, Erin Tieszen awkwardly waded through a pond at the Audubon Conservation Education Center on Monday while scouring the pond’s bottom with a net to capture aquatic bugs.
“I feel like I should be in a Cabela’s ad or something,” the 18-year-old Billings Senior graduate joked between stabs of the net into the glistening water.
Tieszen is one of eight Senior and West students awarded internships at the center this summer as part of a National Audubon Society initiative called Together Green. The program is aimed at providing inspiration and leadership opportunities to improve environmental health, according to Together Green’s website. In 2010, 40 grants ranging from $5,000 to $80,000 were awarded. The Audubon Conservation Education Center’s grant was for $26,000 and funds the interns’ salaries, training and a rafting trip at the end of the summer. The program is funded by Toyota.
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity,” said Heather Ristow, the center’s education director.
Tieszen and the other applicants were chosen from a field of 17 candidates. As part of their internship, they spent three days this week learning about everything from waterborne macroinvertebrates to birds, first aid, canoeing and nature games. Then the students are required to teach two weeks of children’s summer camp at the education center. For their final project, the teenagers will complete an independent research and naturalist project that will be shared with the public.
Tieszen said she applied for the internship because she loves to fish and be outdoors. She’s also interested in anything to do with science and loves to work with children. Although Tieszen plans to study to be a surgical technician at the Billings College of Technology, she said the internship helps keep her options open.
Her lab partner, Emily McCulloch, 18, a graduate of West High, said the internship fit well with her future education plans at the University of Montana.
“I want to major in environmental science, and I thought this would be a good start,” she said.
Ristow said programs like the internships and summer camps are important ways to engage youngsters in their local environments.
“Our goal is to reconnect people with the natural world in their own backyard,” she said.
Such education helps in a couple of different ways, Ristow added. The programs get children outside and away from television and video games. Learning outdoors also means the youngsters are getting more exercise while learning about their natural environment. The idea behind such programs is that once youngsters understand more about the world around them, they’ll take better care of the earth’s natural resources.
The programs are also fun. As the interns waded around the pond, they seemed reconnected with the inquisitiveness of their childhood, closely scrutinizing water bugs captured in the nets and transferred to tubs for classification.
“I don’t think most young children realize the diversity of living things in the water,” Ristow told the class before they were dispatched to the pond.
Older children may not have realized, either. As Tieszen worked her net into rushes near the bank she pulled it back to inspect what she’d captured and screamed, thrusting the net out at arm’s length.
“Uh, there’s something in there,” she said, and slowly pulled the net back to tenuously reinspect the captive. “Oh, it’s a tadpole. That scared me.”
The large tadpole provided a learning experience for the instructors. Was it a bullfrog, an invasive species that must be removed? Or was it a leopard frog? Looking at guidebooks, they tried to determine its heritage, studying the color of its belly, where the eyes were located and what the tail looked like.
“Every day students are pointing out things that I wasn’t aware of,” Ristow said later. “It’s a learning experience for me, too.”
The tadpole find also started a flurry of somewhat competitive netting. Other groups sought to capture their own tadpole.
“We’re like the dream team,” Tieszen boastfully teased.
Ristow was pleased with her young protégés’ enthusiasm.
“I’m just thrilled to have all of this young energy to help us this summer,” she said.
Contact Brett French at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1387.