Guest Blog: Ultimate Environmental Education Journey Kicks Off For Wake Forest Kids

Photo credit: Sci In The Tri
Photo credit: Sci In The Tri

Environmental Education for Wake Forest Boys & Girls Club

Guest blog by Kate Gavaghan, Sci In The Tri founder, writer and editor, and member of North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s Neuse River Hawks Community Wildlife Chapter.


‘’Is this a damsel fly or a dragonfly larva?’’

‘’Oh look–I’ve got a tadpole!’’

‘’How do I focus the microscope?’’

Questions and exclamations echoed along the Falls Lake shoreline as members of the Wake Forest Boys & Girls Club collected and studied macro- and micro-invertebrates from the lake’s waters. The outing was part of the Club’s Ultimate Journey program–an environmental education curriculum designed for 4th to 7th graders.

Throughout the summer months, I had the pleasure of leading Club members through a series of outdoors adventures. With support from the North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF) and its local Neuse River Hawks chapter, we studied aspects of our “ecological address.”

We all know our street address, right? It pinpoints our state, town and street. In a similar way, geology, climate, biodiversity, and natural waters describe our ecological address. Our Wake Forest Boys & Girls Club, which borders Holding Park and Wake Forest Elementary School, turned out to be an excellent outdoor laboratory for studying these topics.

Up First: A New Pollinator & Wildlife Garden

We kicked off the program in May by creating a pollinator garden at the Club. Members researched the soil and climate conditions, and NCWF staff helped select plant species that would boost our native bee, butterfly, and bird populations.

Club members research and plant native species in their new garden. Photo credit: Sci In The Tri.

“One thing I learned,” said one 5th grade boy, “is that butterflies only lay eggs on plants their caterpillars like.” If we want butterflies, we need to plant larval host plants.

Native wildflowers are important, of course, but Club members learned that trees support the most beneficial insects. Oaks, especially, are powerhouses, providing shelter or nourishment for more than 500 different insect species. Using the smartphone app Seek by iNaturalist, members were psyched to find oaks, maples, redbuds and red mulberries on or near our campus. Besides beneficial insects, these trees nourish birds, small mammals and reptiles.

“Trees do a lot for our environment,” said one 7th grade girl. “We measured our trees and then used iTree to calculate how much oxygen they produce, how much stormwater they absorb, and how much pollution they filter out.”

Club members learned how to assess soil and calculate the economic benefit of its trees. Photo credit: Sci In The Tri.

STEM Skills Built into Adventures

Sound a bit like a sneaky math lesson? It was! Ultimate Journey was designed by Boys & Girls Club of America (BGCA) and the National Park Service (NPS) to support national STEM standards. Collecting and analyzing data, creating models, calculating ratios, coming up with good guesses (also known as hypotheses)–these are some of the skills built into the fun.

“Ultimate Journey is a well-established BGCA program,” said Emily Pelliccia, youth development professional at the Wake Forest Club. “But we’ve not always had the staff to take it on. We’re really glad the Neuse River Hawks and NCWF volunteered to get it going.”

Our summer sessions helped members understand how the different components of the Club’s ecological address fit together. Those oaks around our campus? They’re well-adapted to our soils, which members found to be slightly acidic and rich in clay. The birds singing in our trees and shrubs? They thrive because they’re plucking insects and red mulberries from our native plants.

Back at Falls Lake, NC state parks environmental educator Jennifer Browndorf explained how this concept applies in an aquatic environment. “We survey invertebrates because they’re indicators of the lake’s health,” she said. Plentiful biodiversity at this level means nourishment for species further up the food chain, like fish, reptiles and birds.

Career Readiness Is Part of the Boys & Girls Club Mission

A visit from Wake Electric helped members learn how energy fits into our ecology, too. Professionals from the cooperative demonstrated solar panels, wind turbines, and a Tesla vehicle, providing Club members “hands on” time with these technologies.

“My favorite part was getting in the bucket truck,” said one 6th grade girl. “But I don’t think I’d want it to go too high!” Others experimented with donning gear the linemen wear, or checking out the cool electronics in the Tesla.

“Our energy mix is changing as renewables get cheaper and we work to reduce carbon emissions,” said Kirk Metcalfe, manager of member services at Wake Electric. Job growth in this sector is higher than in the overall economy, and according to the Department of Energy, 40% of those jobs support reducing US emissions.

Wake Electric visited the Club to demonstrate how energy fits into our ecological address–with cool wind turbines, solar panels, a repair bucket truck and a Tesla! Photo credit: Sci In The Tri.

Ultimate Journey is just one of the many programs BGCA offers at more than 4,700 clubs across America. Their mission is “to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.” There’s plenty of national data attesting to their success, but at my Wake Forest Club, I see the success every time I walk in the door. It’s in the kindness and respect Club members give their counselors and peers, their enthusiasm for new experiences, their perseverance.

As we head into a new school year, we’ve got plans to expand our pollinator garden, troubleshoot some stormwater runoff, and conduct nature studies at nearby parks. We’re just getting started on our Ultimate Journey!

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