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Becky Meyer loves getting young people outside exploring science

Feeling stressed? Head outside for a five-minute walk. Research (and your grandpa) will tell you - you'll feel a bit better afterward.

Extension educator Becky Meyer
The restorative benefits of being outdoors are well-documented. And it's not just your emotional health that improves from time outside; you can also contribute to the environmental health of your community.

Becky Meyer is an Extension educator with expertise in environment and science education. She believes that young people learn best when immersed in the content. In other words, if you want to study nature, go outside.

Case in point: Last summer Becky, together with 4-H program coordinator Tracey Anderson and partners from Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), ran a summer camp to connect young people to their natural environment. Over the course of six weeks, youth in two sites got outside and investigated a shared research question: Are there any invasive species in our lakes?

"We didn’t know what the kids would find. If the answer had been 'no' to their research question, that wouldn't have been very exciting for them. We knew what experts in the area had already cataloged, but we didn't know what the youth would find," Becky said.

Wrapped around the research question was a bundle of activities, like learning the scientific research method, keeping good data, meeting with SWCD and DNR officials and trapping crayfish around the six bodies of water they studied. Campers also enjoyed water recreation like kayaking, swimming and fishing. These activities were designed to help young people enjoy the outdoors and contribute to the environmental health of their local waterways.

"Youth at both sites ended up identifying new aquatic invasive species that hadn't previously been known to be there," Becky said. "That's not a good thing. But early identification means there are more chances to manage them."

4-H'er launching water craft into frozen stream
Experts sometimes resist enlisting youth to gather data, saying they don't have the expertise to do research. But Becky believes that young people are natural citizen scientists. "Kids are often the first detectors of invasive species. They often notice things first because they're out there in contact with nature. They may not be able to identify it, but they can bring it to the attention of the adults who may know more about what that thing is."

And that's exactly what happened at camp. "Most Lake County waters do not have any invasive species. It was unexpected that our campers found some." Having proved her point, Becky is now mulling how to expand the program next summer. "They kids were proud and really provided important information for our community. I'd like to give that same opportunity to more youth in our area."

By engaging kids in these outdoor learning opportunities, they can develop skills to identify what they're noticing and prompt further investigations for early detection and interventions with local authorities.  -- even when the weather is cold.

Ann Nordby
Communications & online learning
Extension Center for Youth Development

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