Discovering nature with Philly’s public schools

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum is connecting students in local Philadelphia public schools to nature in their communities. Since January, they’ve hit the ground running in three schools within only a few miles of the refuge –John M. Patterson Elementary, Penrose Elementary School and William T. Tilden Middle School. Across all three schools, refuge staff have been working with six different classes, reaching about 150 students.

(Photo credit: USFWS)

Richie Perello teaches a lesson to a fourth grade class at a Penrose Elementary School.

Heading up the program is Erika Scarborough, an environmental education specialist. Working with her is Mariana Bergerson, the deputy refuge manager and Student Conservation Association interns, Kelly Kemmerle and Richard (Richie) Perello. Refuge staff and interns visit each class twice a month throughout the school year to lead a hands-on environmental education lesson.

Kelly and Richie tweak lessons from one class to another, modifying questions and worksheets with input from the teachers. All of the lessons meet educational goals and prep students for standardized testing. The biggest compliment the interns received came from one of the teachers, who said that when they come in, it’s like having two other teachers in the classroom.

Kelly teaching students. She's part of the Environmental Education Program at John Heinz NWR.

Kelly teaching students about forest habitats at Patterson Elementary School.

Teachers have expressed that not only is this program bolstering their science curriculum, but  students also enjoy learning through observation and exploration.

“Not only is curriculum tied to academic standards and making connections to other subjects, but we’re also incorporating artistic expression. This engages all different types of learners,” said Mariana.

During a lesson on habitats and ecosystems, students examined the terms in depth, and studied both wetland and forest habitat through research, hands-on activities, artistic media, and personal experience. Students also took a field trip to the refuge, giving them the opportunity to explore the ecosystems in person, and for many students it was a first.

So how did students to react to the field trip? “Shy students quickly became talkative, and uninterested students quickly became engaged as they became excited about the wonders of nature through their questions and observations,” said Richie.

“Getting students out to the refuge was a huge highlight. Watching them explore the outdoors and take it all in.”

Perhaps one of the most notable points of the program has been Kelly and Richie’s relationship with the students. “Connecting with the kids and building that relationship over the past few months has been the highlight of this program for me,” said Kelly.


During their field trip to the refuge, Tilden Middle School students got the chance to see nesting bald eagles. Read more.

Their connection with students has led to a high level of trust from the students. “I’m really impressed with how the kids have bonded with the interns and learned to trust them. They brought a mystery bag and the kids weren’t allowed to know what was in it before they put their hands in the bag. The kids had no problem, especially after Kelly and Richie put their hands in first. I was never able to get kids to do this. I didn’t think it was going to work,” said Erica.

So far, students have seen and identified animal pelts, held live crayfish, constructed model wetlands, examined scat, observed earthworms, and built terrariums with live organisms. The biggest hit however, was when Richie’s group fed an earthworm to a crayfish. “That was the highlight of the year,” said Richie with a laugh.

“The ultimate goal of this program demonstrates not only the importance of environmental education and bringing the refuge into the community as resource, but it’s also a way to improve habitat in the neighborhoods where the students live,” said Mariana.

The refuge plans to expand the program next year to more classes and hopefully provide lessons throughout the full school year. Follow the progress of the refuge’s environmental education program on their Facebook page.

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