Heads gyrate to take a second look at a group of over seventy-five sixth graders walked by, filling the hallway of the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno with not only bodies, but excited chatter as well. If the sure mass of kids seen entering the room at the end of the hall wasn’t enough to capture vacationers and convention attendees, the shrieking sounds emitting from a room inside with over twenty kids blowing on predator calls sure did. This eye-catcher event to onlookers was the second annual Youth Wildlife Conservation Experience (YWCE), and the hotel sentinel at the door to the youth event learned quickly that his job wouldn’t be keeping kids in the youth area, but answering questions by those with inquiries walking by.
As part of the Wild Sheep Foundation’s annual convention, the YWCE spanned three full days and incorporated up to eleven stations that local youth rotated through over the five to six hours they were there. Stations ranged from a variety of concepts offering participants a glimpse into different aspects of conservation, the shooting sports, and the outdoors.
Although each of the three days was relatively similar, Thursday and Friday were dedicated to inviting local school groups. Intermediate elementary students, middle school students, and high school students from six different schools attended the first two days. Reaching capacity in late fall, and being told they could be on the waiting list for the following year, an additional school chose to bring their students on Saturday, not wanting to miss the great opportunity for their children. In addition to school groups, who were brought in on buses, local organizations and groups were invited to the Saturday event. Three weeks before the YWCE was to take place, additional groups and individuals were added to the waiting list with other schools interested in attending the event the following year.
Why all the interest? The opportunity to partake in an event that combined multifaceted activities from the outdoors with science in a hands-on setting and perhaps being just something plain different to many, seemed irresistible.
Activity stations were designed to inspire our next generation of conservationists, no matter what background. Each day, tables of students, teachers, and parents were welcomed and next given a brief introduction to wildlife conservation from either the director or the chief of conservation education from the Nevada Department of Wildlife. Students were intrigued further as they watched footage of wild sheep reintroduction efforts in Nevada using a helicopter and net guns. Questions poured in afterwards to the wildlife official, as students were intrigued by what was seen.
Next, groups of participants were assigned a station to start with. Rotations would occur at set intervals throughout the day. According to Isaac, “Doing the pellet and BB gun was the best. It was wonderful knocking down the metal plates.” Three of the stations focused specifically on safety and skill development associated with firearms. An electronic dry-fire trap range allowed participants both beginner and advanced to rotate through an actual five-person trap shoot. After saying, “Pull!” the electronic shotgun was pointed toward a screen on the wall and followed the “clay target” until the time was right and the trigger was pulled. If the electronic dot didn’t disappear from being hit, the shooter wouldn’t get frustrated, but instead looked to learn from it to improve for the next shot by looking at a 42 inch flat screen to see where their shot placement was in relation to the target.
Utilizing electronics once again, another station introduced students to hunter safety where they hit key concepts in gun safety, gun respect, shot placement, and different scenarios associated with hunting situations.
A final firearm station allowed students to shoot at both paper and knock-down targets using BB and pellet guns. Three short ranges gave kids the opportunity to properly practice gun safety and at shot placement improvement as they went from one to the next. In reflecting on what she took away from the shooting stations, Amanda voiced, “I learned that to make your aim better you should lay your cheek on the rifle and match the green dot of the site to the bulls-eye.”
Tactile learning is vital to kids learning about their natural world. In an effort to bring the wild into the city, one room was bursting wall to wall with hides, skulls, shells, antlers and horns to hold, touch and analyze.
As quick as questions could be thought of through the active exploration, experts from the Division of Wildlife answered them, often times leading questioners to other questions.
In classroom settings, excessive noise may be viewed detrimental to student learning. However, at the animal calling station, the more noise that was produced was a true sign of participant learning. After a group discussion on the benefits of calling in predators, each adolescent assembled their own call, leading to a better understanding of the science behind how the reed uses vibrations to produce the sound needed. Finally, lessons and practice rolled out, intriguing hotel guests outside and those youngsters who hadn’t visited the noisy room yet. Saturday, with a slightly younger audience, switched to pre-made duck calls. It is certain that local municipal parks possessing duck ponds will become popular practice grounds for inspiring duck callers, as Anizza mentioned after her recent experience, “I liked the animal calling because it is an activity to do outside.”
The importance of volunteerism and community involvement played out as members of the local Nevada Bighorns Unlimited chapter led students through an interactive guzzler display where youth used water bottles to spray “rain” and watch it collect into a guzzler. The importance of conservation groups were explained and footage of building a guzzler were shown and discussed with those who attended. Alexa, a sixth grader, reflected on her experience at the youth event by saying, “I learned that you do not have to go very far to help out your community. I learned that volunteers make guzzlers for the animals that are having a hard time finding water and that I could help volunteer to make one.”
It wasn’t only students who prospered from their experiences, as one teacher , Ms. Moore, repeatedly stressed over and over before leaving that she was amazed and the concept of guzzlers was totally new to her, even though she had been in Nevada most of her life. Impacts such as this can make their way into future science lessons in her class for years to come.
Before scrambling out of the room to the excitement that lay ahead, students learned first hand how to age a sheep. They analyzed sheep horns for growth rings in small groups. Another important concept that built upon the initial presentation by the Department of Wildlife when groups first arrived, had them examine population distribution maps of Nevada and learn of sheep’s historic and current population trends, demonstrating the importance of wildlife management through science.
Without a doubt, archery was one of the top stations for most students. Perhaps some of eagerness and fascination is derived from recent movies such as Pixar’s Brave and Liongate’s The Hungar Games, where main characters utilize the bow and inspire those who’ve never shot one to try. After Chris’ experiences at the YWCE, he stated, “It was hard to pick a favorite activity, but if I had to choose it would be archery. Pulling back the bow and releasing it made me feel like a guy version of Katniss.”
There is more to the captivating desire to shoot a bow than simple movie characters arousing interest. Perhaps it is aroused by our ancestral roots, or even the simple elegance and simplicity of the interactions of the bow and arrow. Either way, when asked of their favorite station, archery comes up more than any other station. For most participants, their thoughts are similar to Erin’s simple reflection,
“My favorite part was without a doubt archery. I liked how it felt when I pulled back the arrow and just let it hit the target. I would like to do archery as a hobby.”
With efforts purposefully made to merge the desire to stimulate an interest in new hobbies and careers with that of standard based learning, one station dove deep into the workings of conservation from a world market place perspective. Run by a local outdoor education group, Sierra Nevada Journeys took a concept and created a learning experience where students learned through simulation. Small groups became a country and created their own name. Using their forest resources to “manufacture” products and sell them to an international trader, they experienced what could happen with unevenly distributed resources. Deepening their understanding of imports and exports, math concepts, and communication, they explored some of the tradeoffs of resource use. “My favorite activity was where we had to make money for our countries. I just loved the competition!” exclaimed Logan as she talked about how the activity had used concepts of a competition to motivate and then teach her lessons on conservation.
Toward the end of any one day, black name badges were adorned with self-made fishing flies. This is attributed to a room where lessons on fly tying were taught and executed. Tables of vices and various other tools were spread throughout the room and a vast array of volunteers welcomed children as they entered. Those who really got into it were able to tie up to three flies before the rotation ended. Although designed to teach a beginner to tie a basic fly, even those who have tied before, like Camden, learned something new. After his time at the fly tying station he said, “I really liked fly tying because my friend and I thought it would be boring because we tie flies all the time and we thought we knew everything. But no, we learned a whole new technique on tying flies. The people who were teaching us helped use every step of the way.”
An animal tracking station was added just a few weeks before the advent to squeeze in another group of Boy Scouts on Saturday. Prerequisite knowledge was “pulled” from students as they told of their trips to wild places and the animals they saw. Next, they were posed with the question, “Do you think there were animals there that you didn’t see? Why do you think so?” This led to discussions on animal sign and how although we strive to see a particular animal in the wild, we usually see more of its sign than of it. Children shared their experiences of seeing animal sign from the basic tracks and scat to scraps, wallows, and more. Repli-Tracks made out of rubber were next analyzed as students pointed out differences between ungulate tracks, helping them to distinguish the differences between a deer, antelope, elk, caribou and other hooved animals. The station ended with an open exploration of the other tracks as well as the many samples of Repli-Scat on the tables.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife teamed up with Idaho Fish and Game to pull off a station that taught the differences between hunting and poaching. Captivating interest with the Operation Game Thief trailer, which displayed a variety of mounts that were all taken illegally, students were led through discussions on how poaching is not hunting. Next, Tricia Hebdon, a crime scene investigator (CSI) of poachers in a sense, quickly had adolescents analyzing, touching, and looking through microscopes at evidence collected from a crime against wildlife. Students were not only introduced to basic techniques used in science for her job, but also to a possible future career option. In fact, Ms. Lopategui, a local high school teacher, was thrilled with this particular station in how it reinforced the science her students had just learned recently in class. With her class specifically focused on medical careers, she had seen the excitement in them as they participated and believed it introduced them to a profession they didn’t know existed.
The learning didn’t end as participants took a break from station rotations to eat a hosted lunch. Youth guest speakers took the stage in the main conference room as hungry mouths chewed and intent ears listened to two presentations. The first involved personal accounts of how hunting had led to amazing sights, experiences, and unequaled family time. On the flip side, the next speakers spoke of how firearms could be used for other reasons, specifically hobbies and careers. With speakers from the USA National Shooting Team, Vincent Hancock, Matt Emmons, Jamie Gray, and Kayle Browning mesmerized both youth and adult on how shooting can become a full time career. After lunch, the Olympians’ medals were an impressive experience to hold.
As participants left at the end of the day with a goodie bag filled with a variety of pamphlets, trinkets and other educational material, one form stuck out above all others. Each participant was given the opportunity to reflect upon their experience and send it in to participate in free outdoor mentor experiences, from shooting clinics to a five-day adventure camp at the Boone and Crockett Club’s Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch in Montana.
At the end of the three days, six-hundred youth, twenty-one teachers, and over a hundred parents, Boy and Girl Scout leaders and other adult volunteers were impacted from this experience. It wouldn’t have been possible to put on such a large-scale event without a variety of organizations coming together, volunteering their time and resources to pull it off. Just a few of the organizations included the Wild Sheep Foundation, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Idaho Fish and Game, Scholastic Clay Target Program, U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, Truckee River Fly Fishers, Sportsmen’s Warehouse and Nevada Bighorns Unlimited. Around fifty volunteers helped each day from these and other organizations.
It is in these trying times, where many of today’s youth find it difficult to experience the outdoors, the shooting sports, and our hunting heritage, that is it essential for cross-organizational networking to take place to help offer experiences like these and others. Hopefully, at least a few more kids have had the flame ignited inside them to take on a new passion in the outdoors.
Funding for the Youth Wildlife Conservation Experience was made possible through an endowment from MidwayUSA and the Potterfield family. With their vision toward the future and their insight of the importance of inspiring the next generation of wildlife conservationists, Larry and Brenda Potterfield not only established an endowment with the Wild Sheep Foundation, but other major conservation organizations around the country. With efforts like this and others the future looks bright for our next generation of hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts.