Taking Prairie Education Statewide
By Della Barbato
Education is one of the most important allies to the almost-extinct Texas prairie ecosystem. Of course, as Education Director for the Native Prairies Association of Texas (NPAT), I am biased. I have often claimed in my adult education prairie programs that conservation without education of the next generation could be a futile act. For example, the remnant Deer Park Prairie near Houston, where I conduct much of my work, is home to over 350 species of native plants. Less than one percent of this coastal prairie ecosystem remains intact. It is the same for most prairie ecosystems across the state.
Along with other conservation organizations in Texas, NPAT purchases and manages thousands of acres of remnant and restored prairie. However, if the next generation is not exposed to understanding the importance of keeping parts of the land as it was before human settlement, those same lands may be developed into something else, like much of the rest of our natural landscape. Future generations may never get to marvel at the hundreds of native plant and animal species that live in a remnant prairie.
I believe that we are all born with an innate sense to protect Earth. It is something that, as adults, we can lose over time if the sentiment is not reinforced. Fostering a connection to the land at a young age, and reaffirming our wish to protect, is crucial to the conservation of ecosystems that are in danger of being lost forever. We at NPAT and other conservation groups are busy growing prairie plants and restoring the land, but without growing young minds to love them, we could lose them all. I have the unique privilege of growing those minds. Since April 2018, I have led 81 student programs for 1,226 students.
Teaching the teachers has an exponentially higher impact on student programs. This year NPAT did something different and took the Prairie Teacher Workshop statewide. Seven teacher workshops were delivered to 104 teachers and educators. That knowledge could potentially reach well over 22,000 students!
First, an education committee was formed from the many statewide NPAT chapters and monthly meetings were established. The content was discussed and several months later, a statewide Train the Trainers event was held on Zoom. Four facilitators, including myself, held in-person field components with our San Antonio, Fort Worth (DFW), Fayette, and Houston chapters. Members like teacher JoAnn Collins of our Fort Worth chapter were instrumental in organizing these events. Then facilitators, teachers, and college students studying education came together for a virtual prairie component on Zoom.
For the field components, over a dozen ‘prairie experts’ were brought in statewide to share their activities and hands-on knowledge with our teachers. These included our esteemed board members Professor Cassidy Johnson and Lone Star Land Steward Award Winner Don Kirchoff.
Prairie activities demonstrated for teachers to share with students included: the Prairie Ecosystem and Invasive Species, Insect Sweep and ID (see training video here), Importance of Native Plants and Pollinators, Using iNaturalist on the Prairie, History of this Land, Birds on a Prairie and eBird, Successful Prairie Restoration, Building a Pocket Prairie, Plant Biodiversity Survey and Analysis, Geologic Forces Form Soils and Prairie Features. Free time with nature journaling was also an important creative expression that improves observation skills.
Teachers earned certificates and up to eight hours of Professional Development (PD). Testimonials included:
I would give this workshop an “A” because the facilitator and speakers were well-prepared and organized. Each person presenting was able to answer questions. I really liked collaborating and the opportunity to network with other attendees.
Learning is always more meaningful when there is field experience and an activity attached to a topic covered. All of the topics covered allowed for application, all of the presenters were prepared and our lab, Deer Park Prairie, was a great site location.
I now have more information to share about prairies with students. I can use what I learned to help support a pocket prairie at my campus. I can use that same info to make my own pocket prairie at home or at least incorporate native grasses.
Thank you for all you do to share your love of nature and interest in prairies with others young and older. It makes a difference. It is a cause that matters to the hundreds of species that depend upon healthy natural ecosystems for survival. Including, whether we realize it now or not, us.