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Shifting Our Focus: An Account of The Significance of Nature's Education

Read the chapter.

Memorize the test material.

Earn a grade.

Forget the entire lesson.

The way in which students are currently being educated is harmful because the process restricts us from being fully immersed in the lessons we are learning. We become so lost in the structure of traditional learning that we lose sight of the real purpose of education. In other words, our concentration on the outcome takes us away from the benefits that education brings for students in real-life scenarios. At our fingertips, there are a plethora of opportunities that allow us to truly learn in a way that benefits both our flexibility and our imagination. A universe of untouched knowledge lies only steps away from the ergonomically incorrect desks that we reside in for hours daily. Classroom discussions and examinations are no-doubt educational, but it is not until we open the door to curiosity that we see our capabilities also lie within nature's own education.

It is time that we step out into the brilliance of our beautiful earth and listen to her lectures.

During our childhood and adolescence, we're instilled with the belief that rewards are the outcome of extensive hours spent studying and memorizing. We confine ourselves to our studies, carefully deciphering the nuances to guarantee success in upcoming tests. Upon achieving a favorable grade, we reassure ourselves, 'We've accomplished it.' We become trapped in this demanding cycle of absorbing new information, dedicatedly memorizing it, applying it to exams, and subsequently letting go of the same knowledge to create space in our minds, all to repeat the cycle incessantly. The process becomes exhausting, but it pays off when we see that good grade. Once we are praised for mastering this cycle in our report card, we step outside and look back trying to recall what we have learned, but none of it sticks. We question if all of what we have learned actually matters to the world that is in need of dedicated stewards. We become anxious that our hard work has gone to waste and we are dumbfounded for not retaining it all. We wonder what we could have done better.

How do I fit into this storyline? My name is Zoe Wegrzyn and I am a recent graduate of Pentucket Regional High School and a current Gulf of Maine Institute intern and student. My high school experience was much like any other goal-oriented student who strived to be the best student that they could possibly be. I set my targets high and shot higher. I spent the time needed to master the subjects I was assigned and was rewarded for doing so. My freshman, sophomore, and junior years were defined by extensive studying in order to project myself to the top of my class. While I did eventually end up making it to the top 15% of the class, the material I was studying seemed to have little purpose. I was so focused on the outcome that the process and lessons along the way became blurry, which is not uncommon for many other high-achieving students. It wasn't until the beginning of my senior year that I figured out what interested me and how it might best shape my future. What sparked my interest was not found in the chapters that I had read in my AP textbooks, but rather in what I have always loved; the environment. So I decided to pursue my interest by actually gaining hands-on experience within it.

Fig 1. Taken at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield, MA.

Fig 2. This blanket flower, known as Asteraceae, is a species native to Massachusetts. It is a beautiful, pollinator-attracting plant that was used at the GAR Memorial Library Garden in West Newbury, MA to display the importance of natives at a local level.

My decision to study environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire this fall was not one that was born out of classroom lectures or forced on me by looking at a list of possible majors in my high school guidance office. I have always had a passion for the environment. My decision came clearly into focus once I had started to appreciate the organic source of my interest. I did not make my decision based on what I earned the best grades in, or what would make me the most money prior to graduating with a Bachelor’s degree. Instead, I had thought about what has always been an important part of my life and educated myself by actually stepping foot into it. I grew up in nature, in the woods ever since I could first see its beauty. It is a place I love and have always wanted to have a positive impact on. I have always known that I wanted to benefit our climate in some way, but was never really sure how I would do so. I think what really solidified my decision was some of the experiences in my high school environmental class. Even if it was just something as simple as a walk down by the brook, guided by my teacher identifying plants for the class, it inspired more significant interest compared to hearing about these things through in-class lectures and textbook assignments.

Fig 3. A photo of Zoe (left) and her sister, Ivy (right), gardening in their driveway when they were younger.

This experience isn't confined to the environmental sciences. Students should be encouraged to seek action in their interests no matter what they wish to pursue. Community-based learning is so vital because with first-hand experiences you will gain insight into what is important to you, not what is expected of you. By playing an active role in your interests, you are not only educating yourself, but you are also becoming better equipped to succeed in the future and therefore create a larger impact on the community around you.

My experience as an intern for the Gulf of Maine Institute this past summer perfectly exemplifies the benefits derived from hands-on education. By physically connecting with nature and crafting plans on a community-focused project, I have built a strong foundation for starting my career at the University of New Hampshire majoring in the environmental sciences . For example, this summer, one project I have taken a large role in was the creation of a native habitat sanctuary garden at the GAR Memorial Library in West Newbury, Massachusetts. This project, sponsored by the Gulf of Maine Institute, emphasizes the importance of native gardening on a local level, by creating a seasonal display of pollinator plants for the West Newbury community. While this project has consisted of a good amount of physical labor and long days digging in the sun, the most challenging part has been the community planning aspect. Aside from the trench digging and continuous transplanting of large shrubs, I attended countless meetings with all different kinds of people. Teachers. Founders. Members of Native Plant Organizations. Library Board members. Principals. Business Owners. You name it. By attending these meetings I learned that planning is the most overlooked part of the process. Not just planning on paper, but also planning with the community. To achieve a goal, one must consider who will be affected and how the process of reaching that goal will affect other members of a community. The creation of the library garden was rewarding, but it did not come without setbacks and struggles. Only by resolving disagreements with the other members of our team did we move forward. We had to compromise on a plan that would work for everyone through brainstorming and discussion. This is not something you can learn by reading in a school textbook, which is why first-hand experience is so important.

Fig 4. Zoe at the Library Garden.

Another challenge that I faced was learning the importance of independence. There was one week during my internship experience that truly put my self-motivation to the test. Dr. Terry, founder of the Gulf of Maine Institute and my supervisor, was away for the week and I was left on my own to manage designing gardens, participate in community meetings, and attend planning sessions. Testing my discipline in an active environment, rather than a hypothetical one, gave me more motivation than

I have ever felt sitting at a classroom desk. This sense of discipline and self-confidence is not something you can learn in a traditional educational environment. It comes with the emergence of an individual stepping outside of their comfort zone and into a sphere that is larger than their own and succeeding. No matter how detailed and clear a plan I would make for a project, whether it be a garden layout or a meeting checklist, things often did not turn out how I originally intended them. In the classroom, we stick to the organized plan that is handed to us at the beginning of the process. When we leave the high school curriculum behind, we become aware that plans are crafted differently for each unique task that one intends to complete. These plans then become malleable to the reality of time restraints, setbacks, and changes in ideas. There have been many moments throughout my internship where a plan fell to dust because of a certain failure in communication or a flaw in the details. These times were, at first, extremely frustrating, but as

time went on I came to realize that these setbacks are the things that are going to make my next plan even better. Below is a picture of a diagram that I spent hours measuring, translating, researching, and drawing on to make sure that our library garden project flows smoothly and is presented in an eye-catching way. I had spent hours carefully crafting this drawing and chart to find out that we would not be using it as a display for the garden. As an immediate reaction, I was upset. But, in the long term, the original plan is the plan that solidifies the success of future plans. Events like these make me a more flexible worker and give me tougher skin for my future endeavors.

Habitat sanctuary garden design plan
Fig 5. Zoe’s original plan for the library will serve as significant documentation in the history of the sanctuary garden.

With the availability of such opportunities, the societal pressure and anxiety that students feel to conform to a specific structure will diminish, as there will be a growing sense of confidence in the realm of education.

Thank you to the Gulf of Maine Institute, The GAR Memorial Library, Pentucket Regional High School, and West Newbury Wild and Native for such a sensational learning experience.

Zoe Wegrzyn

Zoe is attending the University of New Hampshire and studying environmental engineering as a freshman this fall. In 2023, she graduated from Pentucket Regional High School in West Newbury, MA, a part of the National Honor Society. She plans to join club field hockey and lacrosse during her time at UNH. She loves traveling through the mountains and swimming in the lakes and rivers of the northeast. Zoe played the violin in Pentucket’s orchestra for 9 years and loves listening to music in her free time. Her favorite artist is Taylor Swift. She has five pets and loves all kinds of animals. Zoe also loves being creative; crocheting, painting, drawing, cooking, baking, and crafting when she finds the time to do so.

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