High school students get conservation leadership experience at Merry Lea

Conservation Leadership School participants construct a shelter from found objects at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center.

Eleven juniors and seniors from area high schools participated in the week-long Conservation Leadership School (CLS) from June 12-16 at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, Goshen College’s 1,189-acre nature sanctuary in Wolf Lake, Indiana.

Over the five days at Merry Lea, students explored themes related to the conservation of natural resources specifically in Northern Indiana through a variety of activities, workshops and other learning experiences.

Merry Lea received a $4,500 grant from the Community Foundation of Noble County’s Dow Corning Community Fund to support the Conservation Leadership School.

The week began with a sunny cross-property hike that gave students the chance to immediately begin exploring Merry Lea’s campus firsthand.

“I’ve been on a field trip here before,” said Gavin Rusel, a senior from Bethany Christian High School, “but I’ve never seen the whole scope of what Merry Lea does.”

As the week progressed, students got a chance to see and experience all of Merry Lea, as they spent time touring the Sustainable Farm, completing service projects and enjoying a number of evening campfires as a group. Students also spent time canoeing, hiking and birding, as well as undertaking research projects to be presented on the last day of the course.

Bill Minter, director of land management at Merry Lea, talks to Conservation Leadership School participants about Merry Lea’s unique landscape.

“This breadth of activities speaks to what we hope students will get out of [the program],” said Marcos Stoltzfus, director of environmental education outreach at Merry Lea. “We wanted to offer them an introduction into a wide range of conservation and sustainability topics.”

The CLS also aimed to place environmental education firmly at the forefront of student’s minds. CLS students had the opportunity to teach things they had learned the previous day in lessons of their own, as well as expand their communication skills as they presented information to a variety of age groups.

“Environmental interests are gaining more steam, but it’s just not something a lot of people think about,” said Goshen High School senior Gabby Hochstetler.

One of the goals of the CLS program is to start that process at an earlier age, and expose high school students to a variety of career options and allow students to interact with Merry Lea staff members.

“These are students that may have interest in some of these topics, but may not even know that there are careers or future topics of studies in these areas,” said Stoltzfus.

Academics aside, Stoltzfus mentioned that students just enjoyed being together and engaging with these topics.

“Creating this community of similar-minded people was one of the benefits that students were seeing by the end of the week,” he said.

By the end of the week students were beginning to reflect on what they would take home from CLS. Stoltzfus shared hopes for them, saying “they can now leave knowing there are options, there are people out there who devote their lives to land management or plant ecosystems. That’s important for people who get excited about these kinds of things.”

Students also shared lasting reflections in journal entries, taking with them a variety of learnings from the week. One student wrote, “After seeing everything… I think now sustainability means that we are trying to reconnect humans and nature, and making human life both comfortable and even helpful to the environment.”

After a successful first year, Merry Lea staff hope to make the CLS an annual event.

 By Katie Hurst