Budget cuts are every school district’s fear, but the state of Pennsylvania has seen some of the worst. In 2011, Gov. Tom Corbett made the controversial decision to slash $859 million in classroom funding, and the schools hardest hit by those cuts have been in high-poverty districts.
With that level of belt tightening, up-to-date textbooks can become a luxury and field trips a thing of the past. Even basic science education has taken a hit.
Fortunately, one nonprofit has stepped in to help. Creek Connections is an environmental outreach program that teaches science to students by taking them out of the classroom and over to nearby streams to perform hands-on fieldwork.
“It’s a fundamentally important part of society that we have resources in education, especially in the sciences,” says Wendy Kedzierski, project director of Creek Connections. “With the changes in society and budget cuts in schools, kids aren’t getting out for field trips, or even into their own backyards, these days. So we encourage students to study creeks, and we’re there to provide assistance, completely free of cost, to their teachers.”
Working collaboratively with Allegheny College, Creek Connections designs curricula aimed at getting kids interested in environmental stewardship. Students learn how to conduct water quality tests, run research projects on subjects such as stream ecology and drainage systems, and at the end of the year, present their findings at a final symposium.
Led by a team of college volunteers, the nonprofit not only provides expert instruction but also supplies classes with manuals, equipment, and any other resources they need to approach ecological issues in an investigative and hands-on way.
The ultimate goal isn’t to turn kids into scientists—it's to encourage them to become more responsible members of society. “We hope that they at least become informed citizens,” Kedzierski says. The critical skills children learn at this age can serve them throughout life, whether it's in making more informed life decisions or questioning what they see in the media.
On a more immediate level, the nonprofit’s approach to science education has also been a key to unlocking untapped potential within some of the students: Kids who previously underachieved in the classroom have come to life when they're outside performing fieldwork.
“The teachers are always surprised that the student who’s been giving them a hard time all of a sudden is focused and doing this hands-on work with us,” Kedzierski says. “It enables these teachers to see these students in a new light and give some of the students who wouldn’t be as interested in the schoolwork something to be interested in.”
The importance of the nonprofit’s work hasn’t been lost on the districts it serves. Creek Connections has won a string of educational awards, and last year it also won a free Toyota Sienna, courtesy of Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good program. The online contest allows Facebook users to vote on the nonprofit they believe should win a new car.
Finally equipped with a vehicle that can haul the multitude of resources and equipment that classes need, Creek Connections has been able to expand its reach, serving all of western Pennsylvania and sometimes beyond.
“I love my job,” Kedzierski says. “The success of our program is that we are getting staff out to teachers to help them do this kind of work.... The schools that we work with, they all appreciate the materials that we’re able to give them or let them borrow because they all say that otherwise they just wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
If you'd like to help Creek Connections provide environmental education to the kids who otherwise wouldn't have it, visit its website.
To find out more about Toyota's 100 Cars for Good program, visit the campaign's Facebook page, and discover other nonprofits that need your vote.
This post is sponsored by Toyota's philanthropy program 100 Cars for Good. Starting October 1 and ending November 19, do your own good deed by voting for your favorite organizations and causes on the 100 Cars for Good Facebook App.