The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Young Naturalists program educators find renewed inspiration for their work from the young people selected for it each summer.

Those students in turn value the passion for the environment in the adults they meet over the five weeks packed with educational and natural world experiences. And they build a community, too.

Monday is the deadline for applications to be submitted to be part of this year’s cohort, according to the conservancy website. And it’s a very competitive process — only 12 will be chosen from what Ellen Conrad, conservancy naturalist educator, called a record number of applicants.

The Young Naturalists program has been recognized for its 2023 effort with the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The 22 awards to schools, businesses and organizations acknowledge initiatives demonstrating exemplary efforts in environmental protection, innovation, partnership, economic impact, consideration of climate change, sustainability and environmental justice, according to a conservancy news release.

The 2023 Young Naturalist Program epitomized these values by providing paid student internships aimed at fostering education, professional development and service learning through environmental stewardship, the news release stated. Participating students engaged in comprehensive projects aimed at lasting positive changes within Pittsburgh’s parks system, including the installation of water bars, bluebird nest boxes and erosion control measures in Frick Park, among other initiatives.

Conrad said in the news release that encouraging young people — many of whom are historically excluded from the sciences and outdoors — to embrace their curiosity for the natural world is an honor for her and the other educators. “We love being a part of students’ journey as they realize the many wonders of nature, fostering hobbies, careers and a lifelong appreciation for the things that make our earth beautiful, diverse and invaluable.”

Students in the program learn about the environment, gain unique work and leadership experience, and meet other teenagers who are interested in the environment, according to the conservancy website. Students spend their summer outdoors learning about environmental STEM content alongside expert naturalists, scientists and nature enthusiasts while working to improve city parks by controlling erosion, managing and monitoring invasive species, repairing trails and caring for trees.  

Guest scientists, speakers and program partners listed on the conservancy website include the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Powdermill Avian Research Center, Allegheny County Conservation District and the Watersmith Guild. 

Conrad and fellow educator Stephen Bucklin work on the curriculum for the program along with their staff. The first week is a retreat at Powdermill, then each following week has a different theme. This year’s themes include studying birds, insects, fungi, forests, water and climate.  

Selected students receive a $1,000 stipend while working four days a week for the duration of the program, and they must attend all the listed dates. They also receive a raincoat, T-shirts, water bottle, work boots and bus passes.

Bucklin said the educators and staff pack as much as possible into the three-day retreat and team-building experience in the Laurel Highlands. “We try to focus on them getting some incredible nature experiences. It’s super inspiring,” he said.

One of the 2023 Young Naturalists positions an insect for a photograph. (Courtesy of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy)

The retreat includes working with the Powdermill Avian Research Center, the largest bird banding lab in North America. “They set out mist nets and capture birds and put them in little canvas bags,” Bucklin said. “They bring them inside, weighing the birds and giving them bands to track them and collect other data.”  One aspect is the students will be up close and personal with some colorful tropical birds that come to Pennsylvania to breed for the summer.  “We do a lot of cool nature stuff to excite them and build that shared experience.”

Conrad said the students are based at Frick Park, where they do much of their stewardship work. Most of the guest speakers come there, too, although one new experience will be a water week, which will include paddleboarding on the Allegheny River at the Watersmith Guild. Bucklin said the students will paddle to the Allegheny River State Park, which is only accessible by water.

Tree Pittsburgh is the partner organization for forest and fungi week, Conrad said.

The educators have been interviewing applicants, and preference is given to students who have participated in other conservancy programs. The goal is not always selecting people who know they want to major in environmental fields. “We are encouraging people with an interest in the outdoors to continue doing that,” she said. “I honestly feel it’s a success if the students have a deeper appreciation for the outdoors. Students get to see what they see and cannot unsee, like the birds in the trees and the insects. Once you notice them, you can’t forget about them.”

 Bucklin said the guest speakers introduce students to not only their careers but also the paths they took. “We ask them to give a very honest description to reassure these kids it’s OK to change your mind, not having things figured out,” he said. “There are many ways to enter careers outdoors.”

Conrad said it’s a joy for her and the others to spend time together. Bucklin, who found his career path by several transformational experiences as a teenager himself, especially an Exploring Careers Outdoors Camp sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the students inspire him.

“It just inspires me and gives me hope when I interact with these youth who care so much about preserving the wild spaces we have and building a better world, a world that takes into consideration our impact on these environments,” he said.  “The relationships I form give me hope and keep me going. “

One of those students is Elliott Smith, now 17 and a PA Cyber School junior, who participated in 2023. Smith said both Conrad and Bucklin helped them in the application process and in finding other additional experiences, including a Carnegie Science Center Mentors in the Making program.

That program brings in engineers and other professionals to teach students how to use fabrication machines and 3D printers to help communities. Smith reached out to Bucklin and other contacts at Pitt and CMU for their project on placing parashields on streetlights to mitigate light pollution by directing it downward. They researched the effects light pollution has on the sleep, astronomy and the night sky.

Smith said the Young Naturalists program helped them learn how to collaborate, as they had been home schooled before enrolling in the cyber charter school and didn’t have much experience in working with peers.

Smith’s family had always been into recycling and composting, but affecting climate change seemed to be a lofty and possibly unreachable goal.

“I’ve heard a lot about climate change over the years, but one thing brought up had not heard before,” Smith said. “Climate doomers versus people who want to try to do what you can do and be more optimistic. The biggest thing we can do to enact climate change [is to] look at your sphere of influence in your community and try to keep putting the word out there and spreading the awareness. 

“This was just really helpful. It seems like such a big problem. … They were very good at explaining actual solutions to problems and not just regurgitating facts.”

Smith worked on water bars with a team to divert water from paths park visitors created when they veered off the concrete paths to take shortcuts. The students saw the effects that caused, diverting water and creating erosion. The students dug holes and inserted pieces of the wood perpendicular to the paths, pressing the bars into the ground and adding rocks. Smith said the work carried the water away to the sides and alleviated the erosion. 

When the program ended, Smith was sad. “Having that community of people, the level of support meant a lot to me,” they said. They have kept in touch with some students from the 2023 cohort and plans to head to Frick Park this Saturday for World Migratory Bird Day there.

Smith wholeheartedly encourages other teenagers to apply for the program. Beyond just cultivating an existing interest in science, another benefit is important. “It’s just a great big group of passionate people,” they said. “It’s just a really good experience and environment for anyone who is passionate about anything.”

Future plans for Smith include possibly majoring in physics and focusing on astronomy.

The application process includes writing four short essays. Conrad and Bucklin have been conducting interviews, and they plan to be done with them by May 24. Those chosen will be notified the last week in May.

The educators do invite program alumni back to conservancy events, and the intent is to have many of them participate in the classes and projects the conservancy schedules year-round.

One other goal is to have the program accredited through Middle States so the students can earn college credit. The educators believe the depth and rigor of the program deserves that recognition and benefit.

For more information on the conservancy and the programs, visit

Young Naturalist participants gained real-world experience in 2023 while working on numerous stewardship projects throughout the internship program. (Courtesy of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at