Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist Program Challenges Participants to Learn About Their Own Backyards

There is a famous quote from Baba Dioum those in the natural resources field know well: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” For Anne Baird, that couldn’t be more true.

Baird directs the Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist program for Ohio State University Extension. The program provides citizens across Ohio with an opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills of Ohio’s environment and natural history and then apply that knowledge through service to local parks, museums, nature centers, and arboretums.

To participate, volunteers complete a 40-hour course before volunteering at a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to raising awareness of Ohio’s natural resources through science-based education and stewardship.

As with so many things in 2020, this year brought changes to the program. With in-person training being put on hold, Baird worked with local partners in Franklin County including Metro Parks, the Franklin County Soil and Water District, and the Franklin County OSU Extension office to pilot a fully online version of the course. The pilot course includes 10 modules covering a range of natural resource topics from geology to natural history and soil health.  And the theme for the pilot had the changes 2020 brought in mind – ‘There is no place like home.’

Stream in Ohio

An image OCVN volunteer Ellie Nowels took on her stream walk. This photo and the header photo courtesy of Ellie Nowels.

Through the course, volunteers watched a series of videos and were challenged to go outside to their local patch or stream to learn about the natural habitat. According to Baird, one of the most effective modules was on geology where volunteers watched videos of a geologist interpreting streambed processes before going out and mapping their local stream.

“Visiting streams in person after virtually seeing the geologist really resonated with people. It can be challenging to explain hydrogeology and a local stream walk where people can interpret the cut banks was a really effective tool,” notes Baird.

Following the geology module was a module on soil health where participants were asked to create a conservation plan for their own backyard. Participants also learned about the key role Ohio plays in bird habitat through videos and live zoom meetings with the School of Environment and Natural Resources and Extension staff.

While the format was virtual, the pilot took a holistic approach to the program in the hopes that it would help people reflect on their sense of place. And while the virtual format can present some challenges, it certainly hasn’t been all negative and may have improved the course. It provided an avenue for people to reconnect with their local natural areas and the pilot is working to educate volunteers that the health of their local areas are critical for the ecosystem overall and they can have an impact on improving environmental understanding and quality immediately.

Baird notes that some areas might continue in an online or hybrid format into the future. “If the pilot program showed us anything, it is that people can get really comfortable with these online platforms. I think historically there was a school of thought that the online courses would be difficult for folks or that people wanted that in-person social interaction. While that may be true, we were excited to see interest in this type of online format. At the very least it’s exciting to see that people are game to try it.”

Anne Baird, Program Director, Ohio State Extension

Anne currently leads the Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalists program. She enjoys collaborating on the development of environmental education programs for adults and children. Her research has focused on understanding experiences and knowledge of stream side landowners on watershed health and the core competencies needed by water managers through qualitative methods. Prior to working with OSU Extension in the School of Environment and Natural Resources Anne worked as a chemist for the City of Columbus Division of Water

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