The New Jersey School of Conservation was happy to welcome the eighth cohort of the Jersey City Public School System once again 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 grade class 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: Action Socialization Experiences, or ASEs. During this team-building activity, each group rotates through a variety of tasks that push them to effectively communicate and cooperate to achieve their goals. At the end of each, they discuss what worked, why it worked, and how they could apply these lessons 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 this, the students split into smaller 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 so available to us. Conservation Photography was a chance for the students of Jersey City to take a walk among the trees and capture a few of those wonders. On their walk, the students learned to utilize techniques like composition and color to highlight different perspectives of our natural world. As the next generation, the students’ views of our environment will shape future efforts to conserve and protect the wild places, so it is important for them to become familiar with the outdoors. Afterwards, they printed one of their own photos to take home and discussed the how photography can impact conservation of natural resources. Survival training pushed the students’ exploration and wilderness knowledge further. Their first lesson? DON’T PANIC! Panicking can not only cause us to waste precious time and energy, but it can also lead to injury and a worsening of the situation. The trick is to focus on and prioritize our four basic needs: air, shelter, food, and water. Improvisation is also a vital skill in wilderness survival, so the students each took turns suggesting unique uses for a simple bandana.
Not only did the students get to explore the state forest, but they also learned about a few creatures that inhabit it. Both reptiles and amphibians are the focus of Herpetology, which comes from the Greek phrase “herpeton,” meaning “crawling things.” Students in this class became herpetologists and discussed how these two groups of animals are different and what makes them similar. Both are considered “cold-blooded,” egg-laying vertebrates. However, they both begin their lives in very different places. While reptiles lay their eggs on land and emerge from their eggs looking like miniature versions of their parents, amphibians hatch in the water and go through metamorphosis, changing their physical appearance quite drastically. After naming some local species, our junior herpetologists went out into the field to find some of these amazing creatures in their natural habitats.
During their stay, the students also got the chance to learn about the history of the DeGroat family cabin in Pioneer Life. Originally built around 1865 and historically restored on the grounds of NJSOC in 1975, the home of John DeGroat and his family offers a glimpse into the pre-industrial lifestyle. 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 they split from logs, and topped it with butter they made themselves, making the treat all the sweeter for their hard work.
The trip was concluded with one final lesson. During the Web of Life activity, the students learned about predators, 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 is a constant balancing act.
The educators and staff of the New Jersey School of a Conservation would like to thank the coordinator, Sandra Festa, and all the teachers of the Jersey City Public School System for making this visit possible. We wish the fifth grade classes of the Jersey City public schools the very best in their future endeavors, and look forward to the next cohort of their peers next week!
Article written by: Erin Keller