Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa
What has been most instrumental to your progress?
Over the course of the grant term, we increased communication and the depth of our relationships with key community partners by facilitating regular in-person meetings and continuing conversations and collaboration via phone and email. Working more closely with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), University of Minnesota, and U.S. Forest Service helped us further consider and define how the path to employment in fields related to environmental science and natural resources management could be forged for diverse youth participants. These discussions with community partners allowed us to build a collective understanding of the broader challenge we were coming together to address, while also helping to inform and shape our curriculum to ensure that the training and hands-on experience our youth participants receive as part of our program are aligned with what they will need to successfully pursue higher education and future jobs. This collaborative process has led to an increased commitment from our partners, encouraging them to help us market our program, as well as affirming their interest in engaging, mentoring and potentially hiring our participants and alumni.
During the grant term, 186 youth -- nearly double what we anticipated -- earned credit toward high school graduation through Youth Outdoors. Approximately 92 percent of youth participants identified as members of racial/ethnic groups that are historically underrepresented in the fields of environmental science and natural resource management. Twenty-four youth in our intensive summer session, Bridges, worked alongside natural resource professionals and scientists within the grant term, guided by Conservation Corps staff. Conservation Corps partnered on this initiative with the Minnesota DNR to offer more advanced training and science-based natural resource projects in the Twin Cities and surrounding area. In addition, during the school year as part of Bridges, the College and Career Coordinator worked with interested Youth Outdoors participants in good academic standing, as well as their high school counselors, to support them in taking natural resource and environmental science courses through Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) or other dual enrollment options, such as Advanced Placement classes, International Baccalaureate and College in the Schools concurrent enrollment.
Starting with the spring 2016 session, with input from community partners regarding the type of skills that are in-demand within environmental science and natural resource management, all Youth Outdoors initiatives began increasing their focus on the technology area within STEM education by offering Geographical Information System (GIS) training to youth participants. The most intensive training was offered to Bridges participants during summer sessions. Youth Outdoors GIS training, including a PowerPoint presentation and field exercises, was developed by two Conservation Corps young adults who served in one-year GIS internship positions with the Minnesota DNR. GIS training introduces youth to professional GIS software and a wide variety of digital mapping applications that professionals use in the field. An increasing number of jobs requiring skills and experience in GIS are being created at organizations with missions related to environmental science and natural resource management, and GIS training also gives our participants skills applicable in several other career fields, including engineering, architecture, city/regional planning, and community assessment and development.
Key lessons learned
Staff learned early on that PSEO is not the best option for all participants. Youth must meet certain acceptance criteria to take classes from the University of Minnesota, which can put the school out of reach. Additionally, transportation can be a barrier. Other local colleges and universities may have different acceptance criteria or a more convenient location, but it is not an easy feat for many youth to leave their home or high school and physically travel to attend a class during the day because of a lack of access to a personal vehicle or the amount of time involved in commuting using public transit, if available. We learned that the key is to adapt our programs to include all available options that would give youth a head start towards higher education. We encourage our students to take courses that are college credit worthy that will give them opportunities to test out of college courses. We also expanded our focus to assist participants with other dual enrollment options such as Advanced Placement classes, International Baccalaureate and College in the Schools concurrent enrollment. A total of five youth successfully earned college credit with Conservation Corps support.
The hope with this initiative was that relationships with partners like the Minnesota DNR will create a natural bridge for youth between participation in our program and being hired for a professional internship. However, although youth participants learn about internship opportunities and receive support to submit applications for competitive job opportunities, the Minnesota DNR does not guarantee internship positions for our participants/alumni. At this time, as of August 2017, youth participants have not yet secured positions as Minnesota DNR interns. We also learned during the grant term that youth participants have many diverse interests, and as high school students, many are engaged in activities with commitments that preclude them from pursuing such positions. Based on lessons learned from this project, Conservation Corps is in the process of establishing a more formal pathway to internship placements with the Minnesota DNR for AmeriCorps members ages 18-25. In the future, we also plan to establish more direct pathways from the Youth Outdoors program to AmeriCorps opportunities, which can lead to professional DNR internships.
Funding for the College and Career Coordinator position was extremely beneficial to help youth participants plan and make progress toward college and career goals. The Coordinator provided one-on-one support to participants, helping them to work through the steps to begin achieving their goals. Although the Coordinator left Conservation Corps in late 2016 to pursue another opportunity, her work was instrumental in developing a college and career work plan with defined metrics for success. These metrics include the number of one-on-one meetings and college and career workshops held with participants during each session. The work plan and metrics are now fully embedded into the program, and the three Youth Outdoors staff have divided up and temporarily taken on responsibilities of the College and Career Coordinator position until the second iteration of this position is posted and filled this fall.
Reflections on the community innovation process
Collaborative. Creating an educational and career pathway for young people of color in the environmental science and natural resource fields cannot be accomplished by our organization alone. We rely on collaboration with partners to co-create these pathways, including training and skill development to prepare young people for future employment.
Progress toward an innovation
In preparing youth for college success and meaningful careers, we have recognized the importance of offering training in real-life, marketable job skills that apply to a variety of fields. This resulted in adding GIS training to our curriculum in order to provide our participants with high-demand skills and experience that will be attractive to both colleges and future employers. We hope to continue to add other concrete skills to our program in the future that will be applicable to multiple career paths and many different ways of being involved in the natural resources field. For example, this year our College and Career Day events included drone demonstrations, highlighting for youth how drone technology is applicable to various career paths.
What it will take to reach an innovation?
One area where we hoped to achieve an innovation was related to connecting Youth Outdoors participants to professional internships. Although youth have not yet been placed into DNR internship as of August 2017, Conservation Corps staff are formalizing an agreement with the Minnesota DNR to establish processes to help AmeriCorps members aged 18 to 25 to transition into employment. The intense collaboration with the DNR that occurred through this two-year project has helped to strengthen DNR staff understanding of the Youth Outdoors program. As a result, a proposal has been drafted to formalize the process in a written agreement. This process and agreement will be replicated with other partners as opportunities arise in the future.
Conservation Corps plans to continue Youth Outdoors and the summer Bridges initiative, remaining closely connected to the key community partners involved in this grant. This fall, Conservation Corps will hire the College and Career Counselor position to continue the work of this project in a new iteration. This position will be responsible for maintaining relationships with partners, providing one-on-one support to youth participants, conducting workshops on relevant topics, and coordinating College and Career Day events that will help diverse youth explore multiple career paths. We will also work to incorporate more STEM education, particularly opportunities to gain high-demand skills and experience with relevant technology, relying on market trend data and input from partners.
If you could do it all over again...
When starting something new, it is important to be extremely open to explore various ways to accomplish goals. This has been especially true as Conservation Corps has explored early college pathways such as Postsecondary Enrollment Options that reduce barriers to college enrollment. Program staff have learned that flexibility is critical when helping students navigate through complex K-12 and postsecondary education systems. In addition, while we were happy at the time to benefit from the skills and enthusiasm of AmeriCorps members interested in teaching youth about GIS, we have realized that the level of enthusiasm, as well as the level of knowledge and teaching ability, can vary greatly from year to year depending on who is serving in such positions. In retrospect, despite resource constraints, it would have been a good idea to contract with professional trainers to provide more robust, comprehensive, and consistent GIS training for youth. That is something we have identified as a priority as we move forward with incorporating additional technology and technical skills training across our programs.
One last thought
Youth Outdoors works very closely with Saint Paul Public Schools, and our partnership with Sprockets, a Saint Paul network of youth development and education leaders, and Wilder Foundation allow us to track participants in the regional CitySpan Database, which connects out-of-school engagement to in-school achievement. Means and Measures of Human Achievement (MHA) Labs 21st Century Skills Evaluation and Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) are also regularly used to gather and analyze data. During the grant term, 85% of youth successfully completed the program and 98% reported having a positive and worthwhile experience. The youth also led more than 1,000 local volunteers in neighborhood revitalization projects. We will continue to track the progress of our youth participants and also plan to conduct periodic evaluations of the long-term impact of our efforts. When last conducted by an outside researcher, we found that prior to participating in the program, nearly half (45%) of respondents noted that they expected to complete a high school education or LESS. After participating in Youth Outdoors, 94% of respondents noted that they planned to pursue higher education.