Vanguard of the Volunteers
An Eye-Opening Educator


© Susan Salinger


"Look, look up there!" says seven-year-old Franciny Rochet, pointing to a dark shape flitting through the trees in New York City's Morningside Park. The second grader smiles and turns to five of her classmates and their trip leader, Wendy Paulson. The kids breathlessly identify the crow, and after a few excited minutes, Paulson gathers their attention and crouches over her scuffed hiking shoes. "Look everywhere," she whispers. "Look on the ground, look up in the sky." And with that, the fledgling birders are off, racing toward a squirrel on a rock, scanning the skies, and poking leaves with sticks. Paulson watches over the action with the serene calm befitting someone who has been leading children on nature hikes for 30 years.

A volunteer teacher in Audubon New York's For the Birds program, Paulson teaches in six Harlem elementary-school classes that periodically take kids from the concrete jungle to the woody environs of Manhattan's majestic city parks. The program introduces basic ecological concepts to young urban schoolchildren through the discovery of birds.

For Paulson, who helped develop the program in 1997, this is but one of a long string of volunteer activities that exemplify her long-term commitment to environmental education and conservation. During the 1980s and 1990s she participated in breeding-bird surveys for Audubon Illinois, and she has been an active participant in the Christmas Bird Count for the past 15 years. In Barrington, the Chicago suburb where she lived for 21 years before moving to Manhattan in 1996, Paulson directed the education program of Citizens for Conservation, a volunteer program in which she taught ecology classes to area schoolchildren and developed a series of nature booklets for children. During this time, she also led public walks through many of the Chicago area's forest preserves.

"There's hardly a thing you can name that she wasn't active in," says Chuck Westcott, a 25-year member of Prairie Woods Audubon and the former director of the Crabtree Nature Center, in Barrington. "I don't think there's a schoolchild in the area who wouldn't recognize her and want her to teach a class or lead a field trip."

Back in Morningside Park, not far from Paulson's home on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the students spy a bird's nest high in the trees and rush to tell Paulson of their discovery. "New York City is a great place to learn about birds," says Paulson. "There are always surprises, like the kestrel and the hermit thrushes we saw this morning." Her goal is to help young children see the wildlife all around them and appreciate nature everywhere. "I hope to open their eyes to the rich, diverse natural world that's out there," she says, "and the birds are an entry point into that world. It's easier to care about things if you see them and you know about them."

--Ryan George


Randall Davey Audubon Center
Asking the Right Questions

© Douglas Merriam
Fifth graders from Santa Fe schools like Pinon Elementary keep bilingual journals (left) to record observations, from the vanilla smell of a ponderosa pine (right) to the shape of tiny creatures.


"I know!" "I know!" The voices of the fifth graders at Agua Fria Elementary School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, overlap one another, and the kids' hands wave eagerly in the air.

Lauren Parmelee, director of education for Audubon-New Mexico, stands at the front of the airy classroom at the Randall Davey Audubon Center, casual in jeans, her wavy brown hair loose around her shoulders. She holds a coyote skull in her hands.

"The most important thing about being a scientist," Parmelee tells the class, "is asking questions. You have nothing to study if you don't have questions. The best ones are questions you think of yourself."

The 24 kids jockeying for her attention are in their second day of the center's weeklong Outdoor Science Field Studies program, which is led by Parmelee, education specialist Jessica Lagalo, and education assistant Margot Shapiro. Today the students are practicing observation and classification by comparing the ecosystems of their schoolyard in the dusty, high-desert town of Santa Fe to the ecosystems of the Audubon center, tucked in a valley in the Santa Fe foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

© Douglas Merriam

That these fifth graders are here at all is something of a miracle. In their school district, literacy and basic skills are far higher priorities than environmental education. Many of these kids come from low-income families, says their schoolteacher, Janie Chodosh. Most are Hispanic; many are Mexican immigrants.

The kids volunteer rapid-fire questions about the skull: "Where did it come from?" "Why does it have teeth?" "How come skulls are always white?" Finally, from a girl who can barely contain her impatience: "When are we going outside?"

Randall Davey's field-studies program for fifth graders uses an English-Spanish field journal that introduces kids to scientific inquiry and integrates literacy, writing, and art into the lessons. Each student writes down his or her observations and reflections. Chodosh first came up with the idea when she worked for the Randall Davey center in the job Parmelee now holds. After Chodosh left for her own classroom, Parmelee further developed the program, which is partially funded by the city of Santa Fe. This year 20 fifth-grade classes in 13 schools are enrolled. Each class gets four days of Parmelee's or Lagalo's time, including a field trip.

© Douglas Merriam
The Randall Davey center's new education building will serve more than 10,000 New Mexicans each year.


The center offers a variety of other science programs for schools, including teacher training, field trips, and service projects, plus a summer camp, family nights, and adult classes. All are part of the center's Equal Environmental Education for Everyone initiative, which aims to reach underserved communities across a state where per capita income and school spending are low. "This is often the only science education these kids get," says Lagalo.

Outside, Parmelee splits the class into two groups. After giving them instructions, including what to do if they see one of the black bears forced down from the mountains by a drought, she takes one group. Shapiro takes the other. The kids head up the trail noisily.

They cross an irrigation ditch that waters the center's old apple trees and head into a flat area sparsely vegetated by chamisa bushes and bunchgrass, the dry soil rising underfoot in dusty puffs. Their task: Look at three plots, in three different ecosystems. List and classify everything they find. Describe what's different about the plots and what's similar.

The kids chatter as they duck under the string that marks off the first plot, a rough circle about 25 feet across in a meadow dotted with stubby juniper trees. The sun has warmed the day. After digging in their knapsacks for water bottles, the students poke about, admiring flowers, searching for insects, investigating rodent holes, all the while asking questions: "What's this bug?" "How do you spell juniper?" "Is this a snake hole?"

At the third plot, a trio of rowdy boys turn over rocks. They're hunting creepy-crawlies. The quickest of the three uncovers a millipede and swiftly scoops up the shiny brown arthropod. The other kids crowd around to see. "What does it feel like?" they want to know. "Will it bite?"

"No, dummy," says the kid holding the millipede, "it eats plants. It's a . . . a . . ."

"Herbivore," supplies Parmelee.

"Yeah," says the tough kid, gently putting the millipede back on the rock. "Herbivore."

The ecosystems these kids are exploring became an Audubon center through the talent of Randall Davey, a prolific painter, and the generosity of his family. Davey moved to Santa Fe in 1920 and soon became a prominent part of the lively art scene. In 1983, two decades after his death, his family donated his historic house, outbuildings, and 135-acre property to the Audubon Society. A collection of Davey's paintings, auctioned at Christie's, provided the center's initial $600,000 endowment. A capital campaign, begun in 2000, funded the new education building, Lagalo's position, a school-bus-size parking lot, and the renovation of the visitors' center (in the building that once stabled Davey's polo ponies).

Parmelee announces that it's time for lunch, and the kids charge down the trail. Mynor Cabrera, a stocky boy with brown eyes and black hair, lags behind, asking questions softly: "Is this fuzz from a spider? What's under that leaf?"

As the group approaches the center, he announces to no one in particular, "I want to be a scientist." Then he speeds up to reach the other kids.

--Susan J. Tweit

FOR INFORMATION on the Randall Davey Audubon Center, call 505-983-4609 or visit



© 2002  NASI

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