Some of the youngest learners are already starting their environmental education at the Turn Back Time Forest and Nature Program in Paxton, Massachusetts.
They're getting help and support from college kids — engineers in training at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The team combination seems to be a winner for students of all ages, and for the environment.
“It’s really helped me kind of figure out what I want to do and gave me really good skills,” said Zane Mullins, who just graduated from WPI.
Part of his education was to be on site at the Turn Back Time Farm while working on an engineering project to alleviate flooding in the road. One of the students, Shannon Henderson, had a wonderful experience there working on the creek bed project.
“I wasn't sitting at a desk or anything, or in a classroom listening to a lecture. I was, like, actually like digging the creek bed and placing the rocks in it,” Henderson said.
The diverted water from that creek bed ended up in a pool of mud at the side of the road. And each time it rains, the mud kitchen becomes a place for culinary creations as the kids play with pots and pans.
“The WPI students can help them connect that fun, play and exploration to different simple engineering concepts,” said Lisa Stoddard, a professor of environmental and sustainability studies at WPI and director of the Farm Stay project center. “One of the things that WPI really pushes is having immersive, hands-on education.”
Different projects from over the years are found all around the farmland. One garden up on a hill was dubbed the “Fort Knox of Gardens,” since it was built by three WPI students who were all in the ROTC, with the goal of keeping out predators. That was the first project at Turn Back Time.
Another project is a water collection container to gather rain water from the roof. Now, it waters the garden, which in the past failed to thrive in dry weather.
“Since we built it, they've never run out of water,” Stoddard said. “So the WPI students come in. We give them a problem to solve.”
Turn Back Time has 58 acres for farm and nature programs serving preschoolers, teenagers and even adults with special needs. The college students study in a yurt and stay on location in cabins while they immerse themselves in their work.
“When they're building their projects, they're building curriculum for the children,” said Katie Baker, an assistant director at Turn Back Time. “Children are learning. That when that rain barrel is empty, it is empty. So when it rains and it refills, they have plentiful water. But if they don't learn to conserve the water, over time, that water runs out ... and so children are learning water conservation.”
Henderson said that “kids just really see, like, you know, what they can do in nature and why it's so important.”
“It’s really great to see them actually playing with the thing that I created and they love it,” Mullins said.
Baker and Stoddard said the program helps kids connect both to nature and to a potential future career.
“Those kids can then start to see that I could be an engineer or I could do math or science, and I could help to protect wildlife or help, you know, farm animals address issues of climate change,” Stoddard said.