De La Salle students connect with nature in new ways through Save Mount Diablo program

De La Salle students connect with nature in new ways through Save Mount Diablo program

CONCORD, CA—Eager to get outdoors, De La Salle High School students leapt at the chance to be part of Save Mount Diablo’s (SMD) newly revised, hands-on conservation education program.

SMD redesigned the Conservation Collaboration Agreement (CCA) to help connect young people to nature while keeping them safe during the pandemic.

“Students are geniuses at adapting,” said Ted Clement, SMD executive director. “When we had to change the way we deliver our experiential Conservation Collaboration Agreement education program, they and their teachers took up the challenge and are making it work.”

De La Salle is not new to the CCA program. An earlier class took part in 2018, when the traditional three-part format was in place. Then, students learned basic information during classroom presentations by SMD staff. On a separate day in the field, they completed a hands-on stewardship project along with a hike, a presentation by an environmental educator and a solo journaling experience.

The impact was powerful: Students’ knowledge and intentions to spend more time outdoors skyrocketed.

Finding a new way to be outdoors

Now SMD has moved presentations to a Zoom platform, and outdoors activities take place with social distancing and masks. Students can opt for self-directed outdoors projects under the guidance of SMD and their teacher instead of gathering with classmates.

The new format proved effective for this year’s class of 54 Honors biology students. After two Zoom presentations, the class spent a day outdoors. A group of 21 completed a restoration project on SMD’s Big Bend property on Nov. 14, while 33 created their own hands-on nature service projects. SMD offered the students a list of project ideas, such as creating art from trash, cleaning up their neighborhoods, planting native plants in their gardens, removing invasive weeds with landowners’ permission and reducing energy usage in their homes.

Wearing masks and distancing themselves socially, the 21 students worked hard to restore habitat at the Big Bend property. They planted yarrow, coyote bush, Pacific blackberry and California rose while also potting blue oak acorns for planting next year. The students who completed the independent study projects reported their experiences in the final Zoom meetings.

An opportunity to gather in person

De La Salle Honors biology teacher Henriette Howett is grateful to have had this experience with her students and the SMD staff.

“I’m currently teaching remotely, so this was the first time for me to see my students in person,” she said. “Many students are feeling isolated being home in front of the computer all day long for virtual meetings. I’ve been encouraging them to go out for hikes and to get some fresh air, but it was nice to have the experience together.”

Howett’s favorite part of the CCA day was the solo in nature.

“I watched eagerly as 10 of my students walked up the oak-covered hillside and selected a tree to sit by. They reflected on their prompts about nature, as did I,” she said. “In this busy time, where all the days seem to drag together, day after day, it was a meaningful experience to sit and slow down.”

The importance of staying in tune with nature

Clement considers De La Salle one of the CCA program’s benchmark participants.

“It’s clear that De La Salle students embrace new challenges, and their teachers support them every step of the way,” he said. “Having this group use our new CCA format, so we can continue to connect kids to nature during the pandemic, is a privilege and will pave the way for other classes to be successful.”

Clement sees De La Salle’s leadership role in the CCA program as “directly addressing the disturbing trend of ‘nature deficit disorder’ in our modern culture.”

According to “The Path Ahead,” a 2017 report commissioned by REI, youth today “spend less time outside than prison inmates, with the average child playing freely outside for just four to seven minutes a day.”

The report notes that the average American now spends about 95 percent of their life indoors. Warning of the consequences of becoming an “indoor species,” the report states: “Our health and well-being may suffer. And the less we value our outdoor spaces, the less likely we are to protect them.”

Learn more about Save Mt. Diablo on their website.