Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Conservation Leadership in Action Week

Guest Blogger:  Louise McCallie

What do you get when you have twenty high schoolers and a week of outdoor adventures, then add three days of unexpected, non-stop rain? Apparently those are the ingredients for the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute's up-and-coming summer camp, Conservation Leadership in Action Week (CLAW). Led by Dr. Anna George and Ashford Rosenberg, the campers were exposed to a variety of local conservation issues, then were challenged to form their own plans for creating change.

I've been a summer camp counselor before, but never for high school kids. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. But after CLAW 2012, I can say with full certainty that our kids were a fabulous first class. Our twenty campers were from fifteen different high schools, some coming from as far away as Memphis, Georgia, and Newport News, VA. It was an adventure waiting to happen, and the kids delivered.

CLAW 2012 was a residential camp, with our home base on Baylor School's campus, and once we got everyone registered and moved in, we kicked off the week with a trip to the Tennessee Aquarium. Several of our campers are youth volunteers at the Aquarium, but they too enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the exhibits, as well as the private tour. Our aquatic adventure ended in a sleepover in Ocean Journey's Undersea Caverns, where the campers snuggled into their sleeping bags while sandbar sharks and brightly-colored fish swam by overhead.

Monday's theme was "water," so we were up bright and early before heading over to Renaissance Park to discuss water quality testing. Our next destination was the Hiwassee River, where we took more water quality samples and met up with some more TNACI scientists to see what they'd caught in the crystal-clear waters. The highlight of the afternoon was an eighteen-inch long hellbender, which the kids stroked and posed with for pictures. We turned our campers loose on the river to see what else the riffles had in store - and several of them even hand-caught another hellbender! Talk about a victory lap.
Getting to touch the Hellbender
We then bid adieu to our fishy friends and shifted gears for our next activity:white-water rafting! It was a cool, foggy afternoon that certainly beat the 100-degree heat we'd been having, and we all made it down the river without too much trouble.
Lauren and Kevin on the duckie.
After rafting, we headed back to Baylor to discuss and create rain barrels, provided by Coca-Cola and Ace Hardware. We tied off our day with a talk from Dr. Richard Urban from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, where we learned about the legal aspect of water conservation. Definitely interesting for all our up-and-coming policy makers.

Whew! You'd think we'd be all out of things to do after Monday's busy schedule. But the fun had barely started! Tuesday was "Food Day," which we began with a trip to Crabtree Farms. Crabtree gave the campers a hands-on experience with local food, as they smeared themselves with dirt picking beets in the fields. They were pretty "beat" after that adventure, but our next stop was the Southside for a trip to Link 41 and Niedlov's. Then it was back to Baylor for a lesson in cheesemaking from TNACI's Kathlina Alford, who walked the kids through batches of mozzarella and feta. The highlight of "food day" was our evening meal - Executive Chef Charlie Loomis from Greenlife Grocery came to Baylor and prepared a variety of delicacies crafted from the local food we'd picked up during the day.
The whole group with our fine selection of beets
Wednesday was "Waste Treatment Day," and even though a large, literal raincloud had settled over Chattanooga, the campers were still energetic and ready to learn. Our morning consisted of a trip to Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Facility, where we split into two groups to tour the plant and learn about the process of wastewater treatment. Though the campers were holding their noses and making faces over the smell, they later proclaimed that the trip to Moccasin Bend was one of the highlights of the week. Later that afternoon, we visited the Tennessee American Water Company (who awarded TNACI a $1,000 grant to help fund camp) for a tour of their facility and a brief discussion of the other side of water treatment. Wednesday evening, Nathan Moore from the Southern Environmental Law Center spoke to us about the importance of policy in conservation efforts.

Lily thinks it's stinky at Moccasin Bend

CLAW with our fabulous tour guide, Matt Snyder.

By Thursday, the rain had not let up, which quashed our plans of canoeing. However, the campers still had projects to work on: creating a program to bring back to their high schools and communities, inspired by the issues we'd touched on during the week. Thursday afternoon, we toured the RockTenn recycling facility. All geared up in hard hats and safety vests, the kids got a closer look at where our recycling goes after we put it out on the curb.

Justice in her hard hat ready to go!

Later that evening was "networking night." Dr. George invited a wide variety of community leaders, from Aquarium employees to professors, to listen to the presentations our campers had been working on. This event gave the students invaluable experience with public speaking and presenting, along with giving them the chance to further hone their projects. Many of the campers even swapped contact information with guests. I for one was glowing with pride, watching our campers have passionate, one-on-one conversations about their projects with complete strangers. It was a little different than the rapid pace of our other activities, but networking night was incredibly effective and will certainly be repeated in the future.

Groups talking to various experts about their projects.

Vega talking with a Sewanee professor.

Friday - our last full day - was another day out on the water, but this time we ventured up to the Conasauga River for a snorkeling expedition - wetsuits and all! Scientists from TNACI took some campers upriver for some more experience with seine netting, then showed off their catches in little clear photo tanks. After lunch we split into two groups again: one group of campers stayed by the river to continue snorkeling, while the others went on a bird walk through the surrounding wilderness.
Only way to see fish is getting your face in the water!

Looking for some birds

I think Thaddeus sees a fish!

Friday night was another big event - one of our campers was chosen to give her presentation at PechaKucha, a low-key style of presenting where the topics ranged from unsanctioned racing to nature poetry. Our student, Justice Graves, stood her ground in front of a crowd of more than a hundred and spoke passionately about the importance of preserving the environment. She even worked in some of our pictures from the week, discussing how our activities had inspired her and pushed her to think on a larger scale.

And then Saturday morning rolled around, when the parents arrived to see what we'd been doing with their kids all week. Our campers gave their presentations in groups of four or five, using KeyNote and some shared iPads to turn their ideas into something visual. The presentations passed in a flash, and before we knew it, we were waving goodbye and hauling our own gear down to our cars. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who slept well that night!

I was honored to be a part of such a successful inaugural experience. And a big thanks to Thaddeus Taylor, Larry Roberts, and Ben Nelson who were with us all week on our adventures.  The program has an incredibly solid base, and I'm thrilled to see how it will grow and change as the years go by. So here's to CLAW, and here's to many more years of adventure and discovery!

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