Jersey City School District visits the NJSOC

The fifth graders enjoy an environmental education experience at Montclair State University's NJ School of Conservation

Erin Keller

Students hike through the woods during the Questing class.

The New Jersey School of Conservation was happy to welcome the first cohort of the Jersey City Public School System for a week of engaging ecology classes and outdoor activities. This trip continues a decades-old tradition of environmental education and this year’s fifth graders arrived in Stokes State Forest ready to reaffirm that dedication. After an introduction to the school’s rules and faculty, the students all headed to their first challenge: The Action Socialization Experiences, or ASE’s. During this team-building activity, each group of students rotates through a variety of tasks that pushes them to effectively communicate and cooperate to achieve their goals. At the end of each challenge, they discussed what worked, why it worked, and how they could bring these lessons forward to the next tasks and beyond. Despite coming from different schools within Jersey City, the students quickly banded together to tackle their challenges. This sense of unity set the tone for the entire trip, much to the pleasure of their instructors. After the ASE’s, the students split up into smaller learning groups and rotated through a variety of other classes.

Stokes State Forest offers many trails to explore and the chance to marvel at the wonders of nature. The Conservation Photography class was a chance for the students of Jersey City to take a walk among the trees and capture a few of those wonders. They integrated techniques such as lighting, composition, and the “rule of thirds” into their photos to emphasize their individual perspectives. Afterwards, they discussed the importance of photography in the efforts to conserve wild places and then framed one of their own pictures to take home.

The Questing class also allowed the students to take a closer look at the wilds around them. The students were tasked with clues to lead them to a stash of treasure hidden in the woods. Once again they were challenged to find the fine balance between developing strong leadership skills and working together as a cohesive team. Students each had a chance to take lead the expedition.  All the students had to work through the clues, together, to reach their goal.

Not only did the students get to explore the state forest, but they also learned about a few creatures that inhabit it. Black Bear Ecology taught the students about the life history and habits of our largest native land mammal. Each class started with a discussion of different facets of a black bear’s life such as their physiology, diet, and interactions with humans. The lesson then moved to a short hike where they looked for signs of our furry neighbors. During this hike, the students learned how males mark and defend their territories, and how wildlife biologists trap and relocate troublesome bears.

Plant Life taught the students to turn a more critical eye to our wild plants that are often most neglected. The discussion in this class also focused on life history and physiology, but also touched upon the importance of plants to humans. After the students discuss photosynthesis and pollination, they brainstormed the various ways in which we use plants in our daily lives. The students then made their own pressed plant bookmarks to take home with them as a reminder of their trip to NJSOC, and our dependence on plant life.

During their stay, the students also learned about the history of natural resource use by participating in a class about Pioneer Life. Originally built around 1865 and historically restored on the grounds of NJSOC in 1975, the home of John DeGroat and his family offered a glimpse into the pre-industrial lifestyle, before many modern conveniences that we take for granted today. After defining the four basic needs of humans as air, shelter, water and food, the students discussed the challenges that early Americans would have had to overcome to obtain these needs each day. They then prepared cornbread on a traditional cast-iron stove, fueled by wood that they split from logs, and topped it with butter they made themselves, making the treat all that much sweeter for their hard work.

The trip was concluded with one final lesson. During the Web of Life activity, the students learned about predator, prey, and the flow of energy through the ecosystem. This simulation tasked everyone with collecting all four of their basic needs as either an herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore with only two lifelines. While predators could “hunt” their classmates with a quick tag, the carnivores and omnivores quickly learned that getting caught up in the hunt and neglecting their other needs is deadly. When one student was chosen to become a natural disaster that could take lifelines from any group, it became very apparent that life on our planet is a constant balancing act.

The educators and staff of the New Jersey School of a Conservation would like to thank the coordinator, Ms. Lauren Black, and all the teachers for making this visit possible. We wish the fifth grade classes from the Jersey City Public Schools the very best in their future endeavors, and look forward to the next cohort of their peers over the coming weeks!