As one of the partners on a grant funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of South Dakota has contributed to a new book that presents out-of-school opportunities for youth in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana to learn broad concepts about land resources.
The book, “Land Use Explorers,” includes 11 activities geared toward students in the fourth through eighth grades, said Meghann Jarchow, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Sustainability & Environment at USD. Jarchow and USD biologist David Swanson, Ph.D., are also co-principal investigators on the NSF grant that funded the book as an outreach project.
This grant, called the Water Agriculture Food Energy Research Nexus (WAFERx), also includes scientists from Montana State University and the University of Wyoming. Their research explores how water, energy, plants, wildlife and humans interact in the Upper Missouri River Basin—formed by parts of South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming—and how they would be impacted by new agriculture and energy systems that might help fight climate change.
“A group of us on the grant decided that we would convert some of the research from the grant into youth education activities,” Jarchow said. “We had someone whose expertise is youth education develop most of the content.”
Jarchow’s part of the wide-ranging studies supported by the grant involves mapping social values of people that live in the Upper Missouri River Basin. She adapted the surveys she used in her research and included them in the book’s “Lesson #10: What Do You Value About the Land?” Through completing the surveys, students get a better understanding of their values concerning uses of the land for economic, agricultural, recreational and other purposes.
“It was relatively easy to convert the research that we had conducted with adults to something that would resonate with youth,” Jarchow said.
Other lessons include identifying soil composition, creating a bird’s-eye view of a landscape, and becoming a citizen scientist.
In addition to the 36-page book, students will receive a journal, ruler, magnifying glass and other educational items. Originally, the research group and WAFERx staff said they envisioned an adult-led curriculum with groups of students but revised the lessons to comply with the shift in learning environments due to COVID-19. About 500 kits will be distributed to individuals and groups including rural and tribal communities throughout Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota.
Future plans for the project include enhancing the multi-media content to include short videos of youth using the kits as well as new lessons on traditional ecological knowledge and land stewardship developed in partnership with tribal elders.
The program encourages students to think about land and land use from a systematic, scientific perspective, Jarchow said. “Our ultimate goal is to provide students the tools to help envision themselves as scientists and engineers as they work alongside university researchers in their region to study the interconnectedness of our human and natural systems for supporting planetary health.”