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Engaging Appalachian Youth in Conservation Action

By Danielle Ross
min read

There’s a growing population of OWLs at The Wilds, located in Cumberland, Ohio. Not the amazing nocturnal birds that you are probably thinking about—but these OWLs are equally cool.

The Outstanding Wilds Learning (OWLs) program is a seasonal volunteer program designed for conservation-minded teenagers, ages 13 through 17 years, who have a passion for conserving nature, conservation education, and research. This program is exceptional in that it provides unique career experiences for teens with an interest in nature and engages them in real-world conservation and education.

The Wilds is located on nearly 10,000 acres of reclaimed strip mine land in rural southeastern Ohio. Opportunities for volunteerism in Appalachia, Ohio, are scarce, especially for teenagers. In 2015, the Conservation Education and Engagement Department (CEED) recognized there was need in the local community for a safe, positive volunteer environment that would be beneficial for local students and also for The Wilds. In the first year, there were eight participants. At that time, the program focused on teaching the teens to engage with Wilds’ visitors using activities and biofacts. Over the past four years, we have grown in participants and opportunities. In 2019, 38 teens were enrolled in the OWLs program—37 of whom were from the surrounding counties of Appalachia.

The socio-economic barriers that teens in these Appalachian southeastern Ohio counties have to overcome are great, but the OWLs program helps them to prepare for life after high school. An average of 86 percent of the counties’ residents are high school graduates; however only 14 percent of the residents have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

Initially, the teens focused on their role as educators. Early on, some of The Wilds’ team were also uncertain about having teens volunteer on-site. Would it be a positive or negative experience? Those concerns did not last for long. The teens quickly stepped up and showed what they could do. Whether it was using biofacts to teach guests at the Carnivore Center, or playing with children at the Kids’ Discovery Field Station, a nature-play based center, the OWLs stood out. With each interaction, whether it was a quick smile or a more involved dialogue about cheetah adaptions, they really embraced their role as conservation educators.

“This program allows me to be myself and educate others about things I am passionate about,” said OWLs participant, Caroline S.

As The Wilds’ staff saw the great work these teens were doing, the scientific team saw another opportunity. They approached the CEED team and began a conversation about providing more scientific research-based opportunities for the OWLs. Knowing the challenges that youth in this area face, the team was thrilled to find an opportunity to provide Appalachian youth the chance to get excited about science. 

In 2017, we added a second track focused on research. Teens who apply for the program can currently choose to participate in the original Education Track, the newer Research Track or both. Having these two tracks allows The Wilds to provide meaningful experiences that will lead the teens in career pathways.

Research OWLs spend a majority of their time participating in field work alongside real-world Wilds’ ecology staff. Research OWLs help with the removal of invasive species, like autumn olive and tree of heaven. They help re-establish habitats for native animals and insects. The OWLs also assist with reintroductions of endangered American burying beetles onto The Wilds’ property, tagging and releasing eastern plains garter snakes, and counting and recording hellbender sightings. They learn how to collect data and record it appropriately—real science!

An Outstanding Wilds Learning participant using a microscope.“I love the hands-on experience we get with ecology teams I am super excited to be spending the summer alongside my friends again!” said OWLs participant, Brent P.

It was important for us to also understand why the teens were interested in the OWLs opportunity. The majority of them (47 percent) expressed that they wanted to gain career experience, and 29 percent wanted to learn more about animals and conservation. Of course, we couldn’t forget the social aspect, as 41 percent were interested in making new friends.  

“It’s incredible to see some of the teens’ reactions in realizing that this program exists—right in their backyard. During orientation, many are a little nervous as they meet other participants from different schools, not knowing that by the end of the summer, they’ll be extraordinary friends. The friendships and connections are just a small part of the overall transformation that this program brings. Sometimes, we see kids, who wanted no part of the program initially, leave the summer with new goals and ideas for their future. Sometimes, we watch as teens, who were more worried about not making friends rather than holding snakes and salamanders, have a new crew to return to the school year alongside. But always, we marvel at these kids’ drive and determination to educate, support conservation efforts, and to truly make a difference. They are the true heroes, the young conservationists of our planet, and I’m so happy that this program has been a part of their journey toward success and changing the world,” said Emily Knapp, The OWLs program coordinator.

Creating a program that allows teens to explore science and education has been rewarding and challenging. The Wilds is in a remote area of Southeastern Ohio, and getting there is not easy. One of the initial roadblocks with the OWLs program was transportation. It was a challenge to guarantee that the teens would show up for their scheduled volunteer shifts. We worked with the neighboring Zanesville Local School District to establish a busing system to make sure the OWLs arrived safely and on time.

In the end, the results really make it worth it. We found that after the program 64 percent of OWLs were interested in science, 24 percent were interested in humanities/art, and 12 percent showed an interest in math. Of the original eight participants, seven are now enrolled in college.

“The program helped me learn to work with others in a professional manner. It also taught me how to work with others, who I would not necessarily get along with…it taught me responsibility. The OWLs helped me come out of my shell and to not be so afraid of trying new things,” said OWLs participant, Emilee T.

“We are very proud of our teen volunteer program and see first-hand the importance of each volunteer, and even more importantly we see the effect our program can have in shaping future conservationists,” said Dr. Jan Ramer, vice president of The Wilds. “No matter what career path our OWLs choose, I feel certain that the unique experience they had at The Wilds will help them to lead and inspire by connecting people with wildlife.”

In 2019, The Wilds’ OWLs program received the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Volunteer Engagement Award for innovation in diversity and inclusion. The award recognizes outstanding achievement in volunteer program development and engaging volunteers in the overall mission and operation or the organization.

“Receiving this recognition by AZA and our zoological colleagues means a lot to us as together we continue to work in engaging our communities to join us in saving wildlife and wild places,” said Tom Stalf, president and chief executive office of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and The Wilds. “Through their dedication and hard work, the OWLs provide me with great hope for the future of the world’s wildlife.”

Photo Credit: © The Wilds

Top Photo: Josie and Kaleigh, two Research OWLs (and snake enthusiasts), are out conducting snake surveys. These surveys are used by the Ecology team to monitor native species populations on The Wilds’ property.

Bottom Photo: The Wilds’ Research OWLs spend a significant amount of time in a lab setting learning how to analyze data, safely use lab equipment and record observations that are documented for The Wilds’ projects. The results the OWLs help collect are often used in the staff’s research, and are essential in completing publications and projects.

Danielle Ross is the vice president of the Conservation, Education, and Engagement Department at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

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