University of Vermont

Developing 21st Century Skills in the Field: University of Vermont’s Land Stewardship Internship Program

Mike Storace (ENVS) (left) and Kristian Moore (ENVS) inventory trees in Essex Junction, Vermont.
Mike Storace (ENVS) (left) and Kristian Moore (ENVS) inventory trees in Essex Junction, Vermont. (Photo provided by C. Kingsford)

On a steamy July day, mid-way through an official heat wave with temperatures in excess of 90 degrees, groups of students armed with clipboards, maps, hand-held data devices, and measuring tapes spread out among the downtown streets of Essex Junction, Vermont.  They were there to record every tree within the public right-of-way for the town’s Urban Tree Inventory project – assessing tree health, measuring tree girth, evaluating the canopy, and identifying lots without trees. By the end of the week, all the streets would be inventoried, action-oriented solutions developed, and a report prepared for the town.

This was just one week out of nine that the ten undergraduate students – six from the University of Vermont (UVM) Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, two Brazilian students, and two from other U.S. universities – were engaged in natural resource projects throughout the state.  They were experiencing firsthand the complexity of conservation issues – ecological, economic, political, zoning, and planning. Selected from a highly competitive applicant pool, the students were working for the Lands Stewardship (LANDS) Internship Program, a joint venture between UVM and the Student Conservation Association (SCA).

Now in its seventh year, the program is an innovative approach to address pressing conservation needs and to provide valuable work experience to students considering a career in natural resources management.  The U.S. students are awarded a $1700 stipend (to help cover housing and other expenses) along with a $1000 AmeriCorps award, which can go towards their undergraduate or graduate tuition.

It is a win-win scenario for both clients and students. This summer’s clients include the USDA Forest Service, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, UVM Natural Areas, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, Green Mountain Club, and the towns of Essex Junction and Williston. The LANDS team – known as the College Conservation Crew (CCC) – is hired as a consultant to perform needed tasks such as invasive species identification and removal, trail assessments, boundary markings, wetlands restoration, and natural resources inventories.  Each new project brings different challenges and emphasizes different skills and knowledge. The students collect data on site that they then analyze and, as a group, prepare a report outlining findings and recommendations to the client.  In the final week, groups of two or three students undertake small team projects and focus on one that interests them from among the many projects submitted by local land trusts.

For the clients, the work performed is invaluable.  During the previous four summers, The Nature Conservancy has worked with LANDS’ teams to inventory invasive plants. Sharon Plumb (NR ’93, NRP ’03), the coordinator of the program, wrote: “Their work gave us the baseline information we needed to pursue funding for treatment activities.  This year, we received significant funding from a federal grant to embark on that work.”  She added: “Each year we eagerly await the opportunity to pitch ideas to the students and have grown to rely on their enthusiasm and good work.”

The nine weeks of dedication and hard work – through rain, heat, and mosquitoes – is also invaluable to the students.  The variety of projects strengthens core conservation skills sought by potential employers – such as using GIS (Geographic Information Systems), mapping property lines, identifying species, collecting and analyzing data, and writing management plans. Each student brings an area of strength to the team and they learn from each other, assuming leadership roles as needed.  This interdependence, a core concept of ecological thinking, is essential to their effectiveness as field consultants.

More importantly, the students also gain essential 21st century skills that they will take with them to whatever career they pursue.  When talking to the students about what they have gained from their LANDS internship, many talked about working collaboratively towards a common goal.  They have learned to trust each other to do their parts and realized their mutual dependency to get projects completed.  Emily Brodsky (MS-NR ’12), a lecturer in the Rubenstein School and the LANDS program coordinator, created a training program that provides other key transferrable skills:  problem solving, critical and innovative thinking, public speaking, social and cross-cultural awareness, dealing with uncertainty, adaptability, time management, initiative-taking, learning to give and take constructive criticism, networking and working with diverse clients.  The have also been blogging about their work, using social media as a marketing tool.  “The students,” she noted, “are really awesome and motivated.”

On college and university campuses throughout the country, efforts are being ramped up to assist students in finding internships that relate to their career interests.  Campus career planning offices actively pursue alumni and potential employers to find relevant work experiences for their students, often providing funds so that students can take unpaid internships.  The economic downturn combined with high numbers of undergraduate students has created a highly competitive job market.  An undergraduate degree from a reputable college or university along with a high GPA is no longer sufficient for employment in a chosen field.   Connecting learning in the classroom to direct and practical work experience is becoming a required qualification for many jobs.  And, more and more employers are looking for those less tangible, but essential qualities in applicants – students who have demonstrated 21st century skills in action.  By joining together, UVM and SCA have created an innovative model that enables conservation-minded students to make concrete contributions to public agencies and local communities by applying their classroom learning while also adding key skills and competencies.

This summer’s CCC has already begun to reflect on what their experience has given them.  Some can see how they can translate skills learned on one project to other conservation issues that interest them; others noted that they have a new perspective on what it means to manage natural resources in a sustainable way; some have developed a new way of looking at conservation biology, while others said it helped them envision how to combine their interests into a career path.  Martine Wong (ENSC ’13), a conservation biology major at UVM, commented that the urban forestry project connected her interests in urban planning and conservation by applying ecological principles to the human built environment, a career area she wants to pursue.

A recent survey of LANDS alumni also reflected the value of the program to the participants in helping shape their next steps – from graduate schools to conservation work.  Eighty-six percent of the respondents stated that their LANDS experience had a positive impact on their careers, emphasizing the value of large and small group projects, field-based work, and peer teaching and learning.  Almost all strongly endorsed the program and would highly recommend it to friends or colleagues.   As one LANDS alum stated:  “LANDS has helped me see what professional paths exist in natural resource management and has shown me both things that I enjoy doing as well as things that I would prefer not to do… [It] has convinced me that I want to pursue a career in natural resources and improve our society’s interactions with the natural world.”  Another alum not currently working in the conservation field stated:  “I have used the leadership, systems analysis, and communication skills sharpened during the LANDS program extensively.  I train, research, conceptualize, and present on a regular basis.  These abilities are a core part of my success in my IT career.”

To build on the success of the UVM program, a similar model for Maine is being developed by Laura Yayac, a Master’s student at the Rubenstein School and part-time summer assistant for LANDS.  The SCA has also reached out to other state universities, including University of Rhode Island and University of Texas, to form new partnerships.  The question often raised is:  “What is the return on the investment?”  The cost of managing and overseeing the program, including paying stipends, exceeds the revenue collected from clients.  Small land trusts, without staff but with pressing projects, often can’t afford the flat fee for service.  Corporate sponsors have yet to come forward.  Quantifying the value added for the work performed is a project in itself.  Despite this, the relevance and importance of the LANDS program grows every year.

So, what is the value of the LANDS program?  Is it worth replicating? To the clients, the value is in the work performed and the deliverables produced; to the students, the value is in the acquisition of skills, both quantifiable and qualitative; and to UVM and SCA, the value is in the visibility of their names throughout the state, the actualizations of their stated missions, and the contributions they are making to create the next generation of conservation leaders.  It is an investment worth making.   As Deane Wang, associate professor at the Rubenstein School and LANDS advisor, commented:  “Providing 21st century skills to students and empowering them to change the world will be critical to society's ability to sustain itself into a future full of new challenges. This is an emerging mission for higher education and organizations like SCA."

As the sun beat down on the sidewalks, students measured and inventoried a large tree.  Neighbors came out to ask the students about their work. In a clear and professional style, they discussed the project.  Across the street, a lot without trees was identified – the town will stop by to offer the homeowners a free tree to plant in hopes of increasing the urban green space.  In early August, the LANDS team will discuss their nine weeks of projects in front of sponsors, clients, and invited guests.  The value of their work will be immeasurable.

Author Cynthia Kingsford, Ed.M., M.S. is an independent career advisor and an SCA Alum (Yosemite ’76) who lives in Shelburne, Vermont.