Inner City Youth Institute gives students an upfront look at natural world

Students in five Portland-area high schools learn about natural resources and future careers in the Inner City Youth Institute, a 4-H mentoring program that engages youth in hands-on experiences in outdoor settings.

About 60 underserved students – 1,200 since the program began – go through the Oregon State University Extension Service 4-H program each year, according to Pat Willis, coordinator of the program and faculty member in 4-H youth development. The youth get the opportunity to learn side-by-side with natural resources professionals in an outdoor environment that some students may never have experienced.

Currently, national education statistics indicate only 18 percent of U.S. high school seniors are proficient in science, which is a strong indication that young people are not prepared with the necessary science skills to compete in the 21st century workforce, Willis said. In the Inner City Youth Institute, students learn in a show-don’t-tell manner about the rewards of careers in natural resources.

The 4-H’ers get to do projects like developing a mushroom ID guide for Opal Creek Natural area, stream restoration to improve salmonid habitat and surveys of mammals with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. They also completed an invasive plant survey in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area and installed permanent elevation markers in the Salmon River Estuary to monitor sea level change. This year, students are starting an ocean plastics project to help reduce plastics pollution.

The after-school and weekend program, funded by the U.S. Forest Service, culminates in a weeklong residential camp where the high school students continue to learn about career development from federal and state employees and interns. They, in turn, take their newly found education and mentor students in grades 4 through 8.

Students who have positive relationships with adult role models as mentors in natural resources are more likely to understand, appreciate and remain connected to those resources into the future, Willis said. This connection will provide a greater likelihood of those young people seeking careers in natural resources and integrating natural resources into their personal lives.

“The utilization of exciting and engaging field trips, internship opportunities and unique experiments will serve as the ‘hook’ that brings the youth into the program and keeps their interest,” Willis said. “We’re getting students excited about the environment by working with professionals. That goes a long way to get them thinking about continuing their education and going for a career in natural resources.”

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