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Recent MSES grad helping to create new generation of environmental stewards

Sam Miller
June 21, 2017

Yurky, JenniferJenny Yurky has been committed to education for as long as she can remember, but the importance of the environment wasn’t always as clear.

Studying middle level mathematics and science education as an undergraduate at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Yurky enrolled in a course focused on environmental issues to fulfill a requirement and became hooked. She fell in love with studying the environment and declared environmental science as a minor. After graduating, Yurky took a teaching job near Erie, PA, but her love for environmental issues lingered. In the fall of her second year of teaching, she began looking for graduate programs that focused on environmental studies and she found her way to the Voinovich School.

The multidisciplinary nature of the program at the Voinovich School allowed her to pair her master’s in environmental studies with a master’s in recreation studies. This combination allowed her to focus on outdoor education, including a leadership practicum in Sitka, Alaska, with the National Parks Service.

Yurky spent seven weeks in Sitka National Historic Park to research, develop and plan an experiential learning program the park could use with kids. Under the direction of those at the park, Yurky developed a mystery-based program of three events that centered around local animals to the park. With all the materials prepared after Yurky’s time there, Sitka National Historic Park implemented the program — which mimics one implemented at another park — this past fall.

“While I didn’t get to see the program implemented, those who I worked with said the events were a success,” Yurky said. “The number of kids who attended each event increased throughout the program and the retention rate was high. It was great to see that my work paid off.”

This experience supplemented perfectly the work Yurky was doing at Ohio University with a grant from American Electric Power (AEP). Yurky worked with fellow AEP graduate assistant Zeb Martin to prepare lesson plans for local high schools on watersheds in southeast Ohio. Yurky’s teaching experience provided the background needed to prepare the lesson plans and work with students.

The project involved hands-on work in local schools, such as Vinton County High School, where Yurky visited science classes to teach students the importance of protecting water sources not only using the lesson plans, but also through interactive components she and Martin devised. For one component, the pair used a 360-degree GoPro setup to capture images of healthy and unhealthy streams and their respective habitats in many southeastern Ohio communities to show students the differences between them. This gave students the unique opportunity to visit these ecosystems through a “virtual field trip.” They also planned a field trip to a water treatment facility to demonstrate how acid mine drainage is counteracted.

Another aspect of Yurky’s work with the AEP grant was called “My Backyard Stream.” This allowed students to go out into their own backyards or neighborhoods to photograph streams. They also armed students with water chemistry meters to take water samples and measure them for pH. Yurky and Martin collected the information and compiled it into an online database so students could see what their watersheds looked like.

“This program has really been successful because of the connections professors have with local teachers,” Yurky said. “They have been able to let our team know which teachers have a need for this content and that allows us to work with schools who need it the most.”

Although Yurky graduated in April, the program she helped built will live on. Other students in the Voinovich School have already expressed interest in continuing it.

Yurky hopes to work with AmeriCorps or community programs to stay engaged in the environment. Her dream job would be to work with the National Park Service on outdoor environmental education.

“I really want to work with kids and help them feel a connection with the environment that I have always had,” Yurky said. “A positive environmental attitude is crucial to develop in kids because they truly are our future.”