Inspiring an ethic of stewardship through TeenNat

“Being a youth mentor is some of the most important work I do at Pepperwood.”

by Nicole Barden, Environmental Educator

Last week I received a text from one of the TeenNat alumni asking me to give them a call when I could. I could hear the excitement in their voice when they picked up and they told me that they had just found out they had been accepted into their dream college. A few weeks before, I had written a letter of recommendation for them as they were working on their college applications. At that time, they had told me that this dream school was their “reach school” and they were not actually expecting to get in but thought they should apply just in case.

In December I received a similar text from another TeenNat alumni, “Could I ask your opinion on something?” My answer to this kind of question is always “Of course!” and we talked through their problem. I mostly listened and asked questions, helping them figure out what they wanted to do without telling them the answer. I could not solve their dilemma for them, but I was glad to be there as a sounding board. Being a youth mentor is some of the most important work I do at Pepperwood.

January is national youth mentoring month, bringing awareness to how important mentors are and the positive impact a mentor can have on a young person’s life. Youth mentoring is a combination of active listening, genuinely caring, giving advice, role modeling, and cheerleading. It involves paying attention and can be summed up as simply as just being there to provide support and encouragement – when they need you.

Studies show that non-parent mentors can have a significant positive role in youth development, particularly with social emotional learning, cognitive learning, and personal identity formation. Thinking back on my own mentors, I remember the teachers who took extra steps to help me succeed, bosses who genuinely cared, and adult role models in my life who I still look up to. I am grateful for the support they gave me and hope that I have made them proud.

Pepperwood staff act as mentors for the young scientists who participate in TeenNat, Pepperwood’s field science summer program. Each year, during the month of July, a new cohort of teens (13 – 18 years old) come to the preserve to learn, explore, hike, and meet other like-minded teens. After the summer program, the TeenNat participants become TeenNat Alumni. Once a person is a TeenNat alumni, doors to other opportunities and events open and connections are made between participants from other years.

On the surface, many of the goals of TeenNat are straightforward – to teach young people about science, provide opportunities for hands-on learning, build connections to the natural world, explore careers in science, practice how to be safe outdoors, to name a few. However, in addition to the program goals above, there are also more subtle, almost hidden goals and benefits of TeenNat, that I did not fully realize or understand until after we had completed a few years of the program. These outcomes are hard to measure and vary from person to person, but they are no less important than the stated goals. These goals include teaching teens that it is ok to be excited about learning and that being a nerd can be cool.

TeenNat also gives space for teens to be fully themselves and figure out who they are along the way. Participants quickly learn that it is ok to be wrong and change your ideas based on new information and – of equal importance – it is ok to not know the answer and to admit that out loud. Empathy is prioritized by encouraging the teens to respect each other and the creatures we come across in our adventures at the preserve. TeenNat challenges young scientists to try new things and to step outside their comfort zone. For some, this might mean holding an insect or lizard for the first time or going beyond that and letting a bug crawl across their face. These benefits are arguably the most important of the program because these experiences are what build confidence.

This year’s TeenNat program went virtual, meeting via zoom for several hours each week. Connecting through the screen was much more difficult than building a relationship in person, making it harder for our staff to act as mentors. We considered canceling for the year, but we realized how important a program like TeenNat is, especially during difficult times. The benefits outweighed the challenges and I know that it was worth the extra effort it took.

We have seen first hand the positive impact of youth mentoring. Over the years, many TeenNat alums have come back to tell me how TeenNat made a huge difference in their lives. The program has helped teens take up new hobbies, choose their college majors, and guide them on their career paths. It is so rewarding to witness these young people grow into adults that put stewardship and the future of our planet high on their priority list. I am honored that these young people ask me to give them letters of recommendation, advice, or even just a listening ear. Thank you to all those who have donated, attended career day, and assisted in any way to support the continuation of this program.

Find out what TeenNat Alumni are up to now in our NextGen News series on YouTube

Morgan, 2017 TeenNat, on falconry; and Maddie, 2016 TeenNat, on the fascinating world of soil; and Gemma, 2020 TeenNat, on the buzz about pollinators.

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