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Learning Today to Steward Tomorrow

June 13, 2012 | Lake Forest Open Lands Association | Lake Forest, IL
Learning Today to Steward Tomorrow

The program’s 2011 students take a break at the falls in Northern Michigan/Photo by Susie Hoffmann

Contact: Susie Hoffmann
Director of Program Development
847.234.8388 |


Center for Conservation Leadership Introduces Students to Hands-on Field Research


LAKE FOREST, IL -- Lake Forest Open Lands Association has long emphasized environmental education. Since its founding in 1967, the organization has acquired or reserved over 800 acres that it has restored and now maintains for the benefit of the community.  In keeping with the belief that education is a key to maintaining community support for the long-term commitment needed to sustain the protection, restoration and maintenance of threatened native ecosystems and open space, Lake Forest Open Lands has for many years provided a conservation element to the science curricula of local schools and offered a summer day camp for kids in grades pre-K through 6.  In 2009 the organization took this commitment a big step further, launching the Center for Conservation Leadership (CCL).  This novel initiative provides more sustained programming to students who have shown an interest in nature and the environment but are not yet ready for, or do not have access to, internships at some of the major conservation organizations.

CCL has developed a curriculum that is designed to foster the conservation leaders of tomorrow by empowering the youth of today with a practical understanding of conservation issues through experiential learning.  In establishing CCL’s mission, Lake Forest Open Lands also reached beyond Lake Forest, an affluent north shore suburb of Chicago, to include students from an economically and socially diverse range of neighboring communities in Lake County.  The concept of environmental stewardship is no less relevant to urban dwellers than it is to suburban or rural residents, and it is vital to establish a strong conservation ethic in all communities.

Each year, CCL provides a group of 15-20 ninth and tenth grade girls and boys with a comprehensive exposure to the concept of environmental stewardship.  Its one-year certificate program begins with a three-week trip to several sites in northern Wisconsin, where the students get an introduction to hands-on field research.  In addition to working alongside scientists from universities and other conservation organizations, the students engage in team-building and leadership exercises as they make new friendships with peers from very different backgrounds.   The trip includes hiking and camping, kayaking on streams and rivers and a day aboard a research vessel on Lake Superior.  For some CCL students the trip provides their first opportunity to participate in nature, rather than just observe it.

During the following school year, CCL arranges series of workshops that introduce the students to social aspects of conservation.  These include learning about conservation professions, implementation of sustainable technologies and reconciling issues of environmental justice.  The culminating element of the CCL program is the stewardship project.  To put environmental leadership into practice, the students conceive, design and conduct conservation-oriented projects that affect the lives of a greater number of citizens in their own communities.  CCL pairs each student with a volunteer adult mentor, who serves as a guide and general resource to the student for the project.  After carrying out their stewardship projects during the school year, the students make formal presentations at a certificate ceremony in May.  The awarding of certificates marks a significant achievement for the students, and they are justifiably proud of what they have learned and accomplished over the year.

The stewardship projects have been very successful in engaging the students in concentrated efforts that have led to real environmental improvements in their communities.  In a range of clean-up projects, CCL students have recruited schoolmates, family, friends and neighbors to clean parks and reclaim abandoned lots for recreation.  Other students organized a panel of environmental speakers for an in-school workshop, built and installed nesting shelters for waterfowl, conducted a population study of a declining snake species and obtained a grant for a school to install a permeable walkway made of recycled glass that eliminates rainwater runoff erosion.

While the CCL program specifically addresses environmental responsibility, it provides students with a set of skills and experiences that will serve them in many ways throughout their lives.  The projects require students to engage in feasibility analysis and long-range planning, collaborate with peers and coordinate with people in their communities, communicate effectively with adults and make and fulfill commitments, as well as actually rolling up their sleeves.  The students also work very hard on crafting their presentations and practicing public speaking skills. The combination of mastering the subject of their project and presenting it to a large audience leaves the students with a new level of confidence and a strong sense of accomplishment.

Post-program surveys of CCL students show a high level of satisfaction and perceived value.  CCL retains a high percentage of its graduates as field interns who choose to work for Lake Forest Open Lands the next summer.  As their final CCL activity, these interns take a five-day environmental study trip to a different region, where they meet and share ideas and experiences with local students.  Last summer, the group went to the Louisiana gulf coast to see first-hand the effects of severe weather, man-made environmental disaster and the accumulation of silt from as far away as the southwest region of their home city, Chicago.  This year’s group will participate in a conservation exchange with the Edisto Island Open Land Trust in South Carolina, a collaboration forged at last October’s Land Trust Alliance rally.

The Center for Conservation Leadership provides a “high touch” program and reaches out to find committed students who will make the program a truly reciprocal experience.  CCL uses a growing network of school, after-school and church program advisors to help it find students in other communities, and the program’s graduates are proving to be enthusiastic recruiters.  CCL requires a small tuition contribution from students, but the great majority of the program’s costs are covered by a mix of corporate and foundation grants and individual donor support.  Seeing the students’ presentations, and evidence that the students are continuing to pursue conservation programs after CCL, the grantors and donors are pleased that their support is making a long-term difference.

As its third group of students prepares for the trip to northern Wisconsin, CCL continues to tune its curriculum, build awareness in its target communities and expand its funding base. On the strategic front, CCL is looking farther afield to find like-minded organizations with which it can network and set up exchange programs in other regions.  Meanwhile, Lake Forest Open Lands Association is proud to continue its tradition of environmental education and to be establishing the conservation ethic in its own and neighboring communities.


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