IECA Educator Fellows Reflect on Environmental Engagement

Michaeleen Gallagher's picture

As IECA educator fellows, Michaeleen Gallagher and Maggie Siebert wanted to discuss from a practitioner’s perspective projects that are educational in nature, and have resounding impacts on their respective local environments.  Both projects bring research to the public in an applied, active manner, that expose students and community members to environment focused projects and engage the public to become active participants and passionate change makers. 

Sunnylands - Michaeleen Gallagher

Sunnylands is a historic site in the California desert and was the winter home of Walter and Leonore Annenberg. The Annenbergs were leaders in the fields of communication, diplomacy, art, and philanthropy. The site, now run by the Annenberg Foundation Trust, continues this legacy as a high level retreat center for world leaders including Presidents of the United States. There is an education initiative that shares with the public the Annenberg story. But the Sunnylands team is also pushing forward with public programming in the areas of environmental education. A 200-acre historic estate and 15-acre desert art garden act as a venue for programs benefiting pollinators, aquatic macroinvertebrates, as well as facilitate tagging and monitoring programs for multiple desert species and migratory species on the Pacific Flyway.

Facilitate Lasting Change

The value of public programming to facilitate change sometimes comes as a surprise to the facilitator. This was the case at Sunnylands when, as a result of planting hundreds of Desert Milkweed (Asclepius subulata) we were able to launch a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) tagging program to document the less understood populations in the southwest desert. Asclepius is the sole host species for Monarch egg laying.

We invited high schools to bring groups of students interested in environmental science to participate in a training. We had assumed that as high school students, they understood the basics of invertebrates in their environment. We quickly discovered this was not the case.

First, it was gratifying to see teenagers in full abandon of their “coolness” trying to capture butterflies with nets. On their first success, they were very excited and gathered to collect vital statistics needed for the study and place the tag on the butterfly discal cell. All was going well until it was time to release the butterfly. A student volunteered to do the release, and as I went to place the butterfly on her open palm, so it could recover and fly off, she suddenly recoiled her hand and asked, “WAIT! Do they bite?”

This caught us completely off guard. It hadn’t occurred to us that they didn’t already have this basic point of “knowing.” This was a 15-year old. These kids grew up in this desert environment where wildlife sometimes run down our streets and play or hunt in our yards, but they didn’t know. In three years she would be eligible to vote on issues that would determine the future of these open spaces. That’s when we realized that this program was not just essential to saving Monarchs through tagging; it was essential for teaching our future decision-makers to love and value, and not fear their natural spaces. Our focus turned from general field training, and data collection to a values driven program that used tagging as one tool to teach about the importance of our natural ecosystems.

We have also run this program with community adults and as a result we are seeing an increase in homeowner landscape adaptions for pollinator support, as well as increased voices of advocacy, and some covert behavior of releasing Asclepius seeds into open fields. Most are retirees from business, medical and other non-nature fields, looking for a way to contribute in their free time. As they begin to understand how they can facilitate a positive change for their neighborhood, they find new inspiration and lean towards advocacy and sometimes activism. Some have reached out to us to get assistance with Home Owner Association (HOA) conversations and grounds management practices. Others, including the teen students, are joining planning commissions to be sure their voice is heard.   

Practical application of research is essential, as many of these community members don’t see the studies produced by researchers. They don’t search for papers, and even if they did, they may not have the financial resources to access them. When practitioners capture studies and implement hands-on programs based on their premise and conclusions, the community benefits through practice and provides additional real world application that benefits both researchers and our communities.

Status update: On December 15 2020, the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) was denied listing under the Endangered Species Act. Current California counts show the Western population status has now declined to 2,000 from 20,000. These counts are not final, but follow a pattern of continual annual population drops. This being the most extreme single-year drop seen yet.  The US Fish and Wildlife service determined that although the Monarch Butterfly meets criteria, there are other species currently at a higher priority. In 1983, the IUCN added a new category to their Red Book specifically to consider the Monarch Butterfly, in which they listed the migration as a threatened phenomenon.

Lobo Gardens at the University of New Mexico – Maggie Siebert

Lobo Gardens began as a student-led vision and initiative to have a community garden on campus where students, faculty, community, and staff could come together to grow food, grow community, and knowledge of small scale farming, the impact of food on the environment, and other associated aspects like pollinators, climate change, and nutrition.  Lobo Gardens has expanded to be a “living learning laboratory” where students from multiple disciplines converge to engage in an outdoor classroom where they can see their impact and efforts literally come alive.  Lobo gardens has been the collaborative effort and vision of many students, staff, and faculty members but a shout out is deserved to Tema Milstein (currently at UNSW in Australia), to Monica Kowal (at UNM, Dean of CELR), Mary Clark (with the UNM Office of Sustainability), the Sustainability Studies Department, the many Lobo Gardens coordinators, of course myself as the current instructor of the Lobo Gardens program (humble brag), and let us not forget the current students and alumni of the multiple courses taught in the gardens!

Facilitating Lasting Change

Taking a dream to fruition is a success, to be celebrated, but does not come without its fair share of hardship and challenges, especially working within the bureaucracy of a large, public university whose values may not align with a small scale plot of land allocated to growing native plants, produce, and fruit trees.  This is not to say the value of such a space cannot be put into terms of what a large public university values; education right?  Education in these on-campus garden space(s) (we have expanded to three spaces on campus!) can be shown to be of significant value to multiple programs and aspects of environmental education.  Courses have engaged with the Lobo Gardens spaces from numerous programs including: Communication and Journalism, American Studies, Native American Studies, Sustainability Studies, English, Geography and Environmental Studies, Art and Ecology, Anthropology, Nutrition and Dietetics, and Community Engaged Learning and Research Program (CELR).  My course, Lobo Gardens: Health, the Environment, Community Gardening, and Social Change, engages in the DIY practices of growing your own food, expanding that practice to discussions of the impact of supporting local food growing to support the local economy, gradually expanding into how to grow food sustainably in the southwest arid environment while conserving valuable resources like water, to the impact and problems associated with industrialized agriculture, to larger global issues of our time like climate change--as you can see how growing your own food in a university class can spiral into far more than just growing a carrot!

Currently we are working on several prongs of expansion to make Lobo Gardens a facet of the UNM campus that is even more impactful.  First we have been working with US Fish and Wildlife to expand our positive impact on local pollinator populations by providing habitat and creating educational spaces that support their population growth, instead of their decline, such as our recently installed Monarch Waystation.  Our vision for the future is that UNM will become a nationally recognized campus for its campus-wide pollinator corridor.  That of course is a long-term goal and will take the engagement and commitment of multiple stakeholders, including involvement from every level at the university from landscapers maintaining habitat and not using pesticides and herbicides, to the support from offices as high as the president of the university.  

Additionally, we are working toward a vision of an outdoor classroom.  Sure, a lot of education already takes place in the garden spaces but where do the students sit?  We need an outdoor space where we can project a powerpoint or video for educational purposes. Where can we hold events such as an outdoor lecture series, host documentary and movie screenings, or community events where volunteers can be invited into the spaces to plant seeds, harvest vegetables, and learn about topics like food preservation.  We know we need this type of space, and are already talking with the campus architect, considering pursuing grant funding, and will continue pushing forward toward this goal.

Recently Lobo Gardens has become a partner with the Albuquerque Backyard Garden Refuge Program (ABGRP) which is a project of Valle del Oro National Wildlife Refuge.  The program was established to enhance and increase pollinator habitat and wildlife conservation areas into the existing spaces in people’s backyards!  Through education and involvement of the community, steps are being taken to repurpose landscapes in yards throughout Albuquerque for habitat for multiple species.  Lobo Gardens and ABGRP are moving toward a collaboration in which a space on UNM campus, already being transformed by Lobo Gardens for pollinator habitat, will become a space that is educational and a demonstration site for other community members.  Anyone can enter the garden space and see it as a demonstration of native plants that attract and support pollinator habitat and green storm water design to model in their own backyards.

The IECA and its members have a vast array of projects they are engaged in fostering the community and educating them on environmental issues.  We welcome you to share your work from a practitioner's perspective!!


About the Author: 

Michaeleen Gallagher and Maggie Siebert