Community partnerships extend Sonoran Desert lessons into classrooms

From left are Scottsdale volunteers Joanie Millavec and Denise Carpenter as they work to preserve native vegetation at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (File photo)

Through financial support of Thunderbirds Charities, hundreds of students from Title 1 schools in metro Phoenix will benefit from science-based field trips to explore the Sonoran Desert, and learn STEM-based life science concepts.

A new partnership between the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and Arizona State University Ecology Explorers will provide innovative multi-grade science education opportunities in the Sonoran Desert and in the classroom, according to a press release.

Careers in STEM — an acronym for science, technology, economics and mathematics — are vital for innovation and improved quality of life, and can offer a promising pathway out of poverty, the press release stated.

Under-served populations are poorly represented in STEM occupations. A key factor in improving these communities’ access to STEM is experiential learning.

“Despite living in the desert, many children in under-served areas rarely leave urban neighborhoods to experience the spectacular natural Sonoran Desert,” Dr. Helen Rowe, field institute director at McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, said in a prepared statement.

“This reality can make it challenging to understand life sciences concepts taught in fourth and fifth grades. Outdoor environmental education can close this gap and improve academic performances. We are delighted to offer this opportunity in partnership with ASU and The Thunderbirds.”

Students will explore the wonder of the desert while learning basic science concepts and approaches through an interactive program in the Preserve and mini ecology lessons with hands-on activities. Conservancy volunteers will team up with the award winning Ecology Explorers program to deliver classroom lessons that tie closely with the information learned on the field trip and meet next-generation science standards.

“Students in the Phoenix area are surrounded by a rich, successful ecosystem,” K-12 Outreach Specialist for ASU’s Ecology Explorer program, Lisa Herrmann, said in a prepared statement.

“Understanding the way people and the urban environment are knit into this system will deepen students’ appreciation of this special place, empowering them as future decision-makers.”

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