Conservation Celebration 2022 staff and judges
Conservation Crew Celebration staff & judges: Isabel Istephanous (Youth Program Coordinator), Laura Bishop (former MPCA Commissioner), Reen Solheid (DNR), Charlene Simonson (The Nature Conservancy & CM board), Paul Austin (Executive Director)

Conservation Celebration: Inspiring a New Generation

Conservation Minnesota designed Conservation Crew to encourage middle schoolers to think critically about our environment. Each Conservation Crew—made up of five to 25 students and supported by a teacher or school staff—selects their focus and service project. As the Youth Program Coordinator, I oversee the program and work closely with each Crew providing a program guide, a project budget, and a $3,000 teacher stipend.

Conservation Crew’s pilot year was nothing short of tumultuous. As teachers, students, and parents know, schooling during a pandemic has its challenges. Throughout the year, our participating schools faced multiple switches from in-person to virtual learning, teacher and staff shortages, and even cancellations of all after-school programming. I worried that Conservation Crew would fall to the wayside amidst the chaos.

I was proven wrong. Each school exceeded my expectations. The dedication and resilience the students and teachers showcased was admirable. Problems such as planting delays due to weather became opportunities for students at Mounds Park Academy to write letters to 1st graders to engage them with their project. When their school district did not approve a proposed site for a garden, students at Cottage Grove Middle School learned how to problem solve and adapt their plan. And students from Hiawatha Academies did not let an unexpected hailstorm stop them from planting their pollinator habitat.

The enthusiasm from our participants was infectious. Students eagerly showed me their progress throughout the year, both in person and remotely. Many spoke about their plans for next year, and how they hope to make their projects bigger and better. The opportunities are as endless as their creativity is limitless.

Although the year did not go as planned, the willingness to adapt and the dedication to conservation kept the program going. Even as our end of year celebration had to change at the last minute to meet remotely, another adaptation resulting from bad weather, it did not stop the students from showcasing both their projects and their personalities over Zoom. The energy was palpable, and even through a computer screen, it was obvious that each Crew was proud of what they accomplished throughout the year. I cannot wait to see what each school does next, and to watch the community blossom and grow year after year.

Views From the Crew

Cottage Grove Middle School 

Students from Cottage Grove Middle School learned the ins and outs of creating habitat for native wildlife that share their school grounds. Starting with research to create a well-thought-out plan, the students worked hard to make their school garden a reality. 

By the end of the project, they had transformed their garden space and have plans to take on more conservation projects over the summer and the next school year.

“The Conservation Crew has provided an opportunity for students to take ownership of part of their school and leave a legacy garden that will attract bees, butterflies, birds, and other pollinators,” said teacher Mike Mueller. 

Hastings Middle School 

Concerned about the amount of plastic going into the garbage, students made it their mission to fix their school's waste issues. The group learned how to properly recycle, then developed an incentive program to solve the sorting problem. Students quickly saw improvements in their school waste as more students became interested in the Crew's efforts. Hastings Middle Schoolers hope to grow the program next year to reach even more students. 

Building Community through Conservation

Before Conservation Crew, many of these schools did not have the support to start this type of school club. The program helped teachers across the state create a curriculum tailored to their students.

Cottage Grove Middle School started its first after-school club in over two years. At Hiawatha Academies, teacher Shelbee Jaegar noted that it was helping kids connect. “Our school doesn't currently offer many after-school activities, so this is an especially exciting opportunity. One student shared that she's never been in a club before, which made her nervous at first, but now she's connected with new friends across multiple grade levels.”

Conservation Crew is a starting point for many of these students. It helps establish a love for the environment that they take back to their homes and communities. It gives them an opportunity to grow as conservation leaders, empowered to take on new bigger and bolder challenges with the knowledge they have learned through completing the program. 

To learn more about Conservation Crew or inquire how your school can get involved, contact our Youth Program Coordinator, Isabel Istephanous.