Michael Meaden is a hands-on, outdoor teen. As a youngster, he enjoyed outdoor youth camps at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook. But then the 14-year-old outgrew the camps. Fortunately, last year a new teen program was added to the youth camps: Eco-Investigator, for rising eighth- through 10th-graders. The two-week camp has teens doing ecological research projects.
Meaden, who lives in Hopewell Junction, participated in the camp for the second time this year.
"I do like to be aware of what I am doing and how I interact with the environment," he said. "When we were doing these things, I thought of a lot of different pieces coming together."
Jennifer Rubbo, education program specialist with the Cary Institute, said getting kids involved with the outdoors in a hands-on way can help them become more aware of what's around them.
"I think, probably, the biggest thing is just to increase their knowledge of the environment around them because they're the ones who are going to be making the decisions in the future," she said.
Judi Shils is executive director of Teens Turning Green, which works with high school and college kids to advocate sustainability and social responsibility. The group started in 2005 in Marin County, Calif., with 50 students and now includes tens of thousands of students on hundreds of high school and college campuses around the world.
"We engage students virtually on our social platforms, on the ground with our campus road tours, and through the many events that we host with students on campuses around the country," Shils said in an email.
Teen involvement in environmental advocacy is important "so they can change the world — one action, one simple choice, one vote at a time," Shils said.
Students now lead eco-councils, sustainability organizations, green clubs, national sustainable food initiatives such as Real Food Challenge and Slow Food Campus, and climate-change initiatives with 350.org, Shils said.
"There is huge awareness around pressing global environmental issues and many mobilized students all over the world around effecting major change working toward a healthy and just planet," she said.
Locally, Rubbo said the Cary Institute's Eco-Investigator camp provides activities for older kids with an interest in the camp experience. The camp's hands-on approach allows teens to can get into the site's wetlands and get muddy, while focusing on a formal science objective. In this way, kids move through the scientific process and develop their own questions with guidance from Cary staff."It's a mixture of getting them out into the environment and helping them look at it in another way through ... asking good questions and making good observations," Rubbo said.
This year, Meaden and the camp's five other teens established three water environments in 12 containers to see which one resulted in the most eggs laid by mosquitoes, through the collection and interpretation of data over time.
"She (Rubbo) helped me, in particular, narrow down and focus so I could make an effective experiment," Meaden said.
Before doing the experiment, Meaden didn't question presented data and charts. Now he looks for correlations among differing results.
"After this, I would try to look for (things such as), why does this peak here and this lower here?" he said.
He also has a better sense of how ecosystems work together.
"There's so many subtle workings about how things interact," he said.
This year, Rubbo said, the Cary Institute piloted a school program for middle school kids called YES-Net or the young environmental scientist network, whereby the students study stream ecology in four classroom lessons and one on-site lesson at the Cary Institute. The idea is that when kids collect data, they're more interested in looking at it and analyzing it.
"It has a lot to do with critical thinking," she said.
"You see something. It helps them think about: How did someone come up with that conclusion? Maybe this isn't really true. It gives them incentive to look more in-depth, to look at what's going on around them."
Rayna Teck, 15, of Highland has monitored eels, patrolled parks and participated in a Mother's Day tree-planting event at the Black Creek Preserve in Esopus through Scenic Hudson of Poughkeepsie.
“I love the outdoors,” Teck said, adding the Scenic Hudson programs were a fun way to fulfill her high school’s community service requirement.
For the park patrol, Teck walked trails, making sure everything was in order by picking up garbage and reporting things like broken fences and fallen logs. She also recorded the number of people and animals she saw along the way.
“It was kind of cool,” she said. “My family and I, we are huge outdoor lovers. It’s an excuse to get out more often. It’s nice to be able to pick a trail to go on and look around.”
Except when the paths are disrespected.
“If I’m walking through the woods and I see a bunch of trash on the side, it takes away from it a little bit,” she said.
Teck wants to be a screenplay writer, director or actor someday, but that doesn’t mean she won’t always have a love of the outdoors.
“We go kayaking, fishing, rock climbing,” she said of her family’s outdoor activities.
“My earliest memory is of my dad and godfather carrying me on his shoulders, walking along trails.”
Anthony Coneski, parks event and volunteer coordinator for Scenic Hudson, said the organization hosts outdoor events for individuals, school groups and other youth organizations, such as scouting groups.
“I think it’s a great idea to involve people, the younger the better,” he said, including kids as young as second-graders. “It’s amazing how many people don’t know there’s a river in their backyard.”
Getting kids involved in outdoor campaigns shows them firsthand how one environment relates to another.
Clearing out invasive plants, for example, allows for more plant diversity among native ones, thereby supporting native insect and wildlife populations.
Taking part in local eel monitoring provides important information for the national eel population.
“By having people and student teenagers clean the parks, they then seem to develop a pride and are less likely to neglect the parks, the preserves,” Coneski said.