In a fourth grade classroom, students tasked with acting out the dynamics of a forest fire decided to have a little fun.

“I wasn’t expecting it to turn into a game of tag,” said senior Josh Long, an environmental conservation and society major in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “I had to tell them that they were a forest, and forests aren’t supposed to move. But once the kid pretending to be the fire started coming toward the kids playing trees, they couldn’t help it.”

Such a reaction – where students are engaged, excited, and having more than a little fun – is one of the goals of the Virginia Forestry Educational Foundation (VFEF) Undergraduate Internship Program. This semester-long course aims to provide undergraduate students in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation with critical communication skills while sparking curiosity for the next generation of environmental conservationists.

The participating forestry students design, workshop, trial, and, finally, present on a specific element of forest conservation to classrooms of grade school or high school students. To develop and hone their presentations, students attend weekly brainstorming sessions with faculty.

“They start by deciding what subjects related to natural resources they want to teach on,” said Alumni Distinguished Professor John Seiler, who started a similar program with Emeritus Professor Jeff Kirwan in 2001. “Then they consider how their subject fits with the Virginia Standards of Learning curriculum, and then we build from there.”

Often, the learning that occurs is a two-way street.

“Because we’re working so closely together every week, the program gives us a good space to provide honest and constructive feedback to one another,” said Assistant Professor Patrick Corey Green, who currently teaches in the internship program with Seiler. “Working with the students, trying to make them understand the importance of thinking about their audiences, and being deliberate about even the little details made me more self-reflective about my own approaches as an educator.”


From collaboration with professors to hands-on learning

For junior Jillie Alexander, the chance to work directly with professors is a highlight of the internship program.

“Collaborative is a good word for my experience,” said Alexander, who is majoring in environmental resources management. “They were so supportive and encouraging, but they also made it clear that these were our projects, that we were the ones making the decisions.”

For Alexander, that ownership of the project led to a lot of visits to arts and crafts stores. Presenting on the subjects of agroforestry, she used a model farm and then had students replicate windbreaks and silvopasture, two agroforestry practices that use trees to protect crops and livestock for farmers.

“For the high school students I presented to, I created a model with small corn plants and fake Christmas trees and a fan, and I had the students use an anemometer to measure wind speeds on the farm,” said Alexander, a recipient of the college’s Timberland Management and Investment Scholarship. “They’d take control data, and then data rounds on different numbers of trees we’d used to block the wind. Sometimes the data surprised us – increasing the number of trees in the windbreak didn't always decrease wind speed – so we’d talk through why that might be the case.”

A classroom where two people are participating in an experiment using a heat lamp and a digital thermometer.
Jillie Alexander (at far left) leads a demonstration of an agroforestry strategy in a high school classroom. Photo courtesy of Jillie Alexander.

Alexander did the same thing with livestock, using a plastic cow and a heat lamp to simulate the silvopasture practice of using trees to protect livestock from temperature changes.

“I was surprised at how interested the students were,” said Alexander, who is from Englewood, Florida “At the outset I asked them to imagine and draw their own farms, and one group drew a UFO abducting a cow. At the end of the presentation, they had added a tree to the drawing, to protect the cow.”

Reaching the next generation of conservationists

The intention of the program is two-fold: to strengthen the communication skills of the undergraduate students who participate in the internship program, and to cultivate interest in forest and conservation fields that elementary and high school students might not otherwise gain exposure to.

“This is a recruitment effort for the college,” said Seiler. “This semester, our interns presented at 30 different schools in Virginia, with 528 students seeing their work.”

Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment, said the internship program is just one of the ways the VFEF contributes to forestry education.

“The VFEF is a long-standing provider of undergraduate scholarships for students studying forestry and forest products at Virginia Tech, and this program is one more way that they are helping to connect the learning that takes place here on campus with students across the commonwealth.”

Green said there is something special about high school students seeing someone closer to their age presenting on a subject.

“It resonates differently, hearing from someone who they’re closer to in age, closer to in life,” said Green. “And the great strength of this program is that it puts our message into places we probably wouldn’t reach otherwise. I think it can help to bring in students who don’t find our majors through traditional routes.”

For junior Arley Lausin, routes – and how to keep people on the proper routes when utilizing outdoor recreation spaces – were at the center of her presentation.

“I picked outdoor recreation, and from talking to the professors, one idea that really stuck with me was the challenge of communicating in recreational environmental spaces,” said Lausin, an environmental conservation and society major. “I had the students identify potential issues and then learn how to communicate and manage those issues.”

That learning led the high school students creating informational trail signs that would communicate on specific outdoor recreation challenges, with an aim to minimize human impacts on the environment.

“Each group would get a topic and a prompt,” said Lausin, who received the Jack Sheldon Scholarship. “It might be people were feeding animals, and the challenge would be how to explain why people shouldn’t do that, what the impacts were, and how to get people to change their behaviors.”

Students designed colorful – and often funny – posters on their challenge areas, and the class would select which posters were the most effective at conveying the message.

Lausin, who trialed her presentation with members of her sorority, said participating in the internship program allowed her to think more clearly about where she would like to go after college.

“This experience allowed me a lot of reflection time,” she said. “I’m getting to the end of my junior year, and this experience reminded me why I chose this field of study, why I care about it, and what I can do with it. Whether that’s teaching or working with youth or working on trail management, it’s really opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities.”

Josh Long said the experience of managing the chaos of pretend fires in elementary school classrooms is a valuable skill set to take into a career.

“There are lots of real-world applications to this experience,” said Long, who is from Floyd, Virginia. “I can take a lot of classes, but to go out there and teach something and try to impact people is a big skill, one that I can carry into a career in environmental education.”

Jillie Alexander already has plans to broaden her background in agroforestry by exploring conservation in a new habitat: This summer she will be working as a wetlands management intern for The Westervelt Company, in Auburn, Alabama.

“I’ll be working with a team of interns, doing mitigation work to help with the Clean Water Act,” she said. “My future goals are ever-evolving, but I’m interested in sustainable land management, which is a big issue where I’m from.”

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