Teaching environmental studies online in a pandemic was not the way Dr. Miriam Westervelt imagined wrapping up her lifetime career as a science educator.
“During COVID I was training teachers—virtually—how to get kids outside—virtually,” she says. “When the pandemic melted into the current school year, I decided to retire. It was time.”
But Westervelt’s work as a teacher wasn’t done yet. She found herself thinking about COVID-safe ways to get kids outside and in nature during lockdown.
She didn’t have to think much farther than her backyard. Her community, the village of Waterford, is a National Historic Landmark surrounded by historic farmland. One farm in particular, Phillips Farm, gave her an idea. Westervelt approached the Waterford Foundation, which owns and manages the property, and offered to start a youth naturalist program based there.
It was an easy sell, says Stephanie Thompson, the Waterford Foundation’s executive director. The nonprofit manages the property for a host of public programming and protected it with an open-space easement to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation in 2003. “It’s an incredible natural and historic resource for the community,” she says. “It’s the reason the village of Waterford was built in the first place.”
The working farm with apiary and hay fields contains a nature trail along Catoctin Creek. The trail is open to the public year-round during daylight hours. With partners such as local farmers and the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Foundation volunteers have mapped the natural and cultural history of the trail, placing markers that highlight 15 significant sites interpreted in a color brochure available on their website. Naturally eroding streambanks host northern rough-winged swallows; a milkweed meadow has been designated an official monarch waystation; and 11 boxes are available for nesting Eastern bluebirds.
This past fall, the farm trail became Westervelt’s outdoor classroom when she retooled a program she had created for Loudoun County Public Schools—the Peterson Young Naturalist Program—and offered it to the kids who live in Waterford. The program was named in honor of Westervelt’s stepfather, the renowned naturalist and illustrator Roger Tory Peterson, who authored Peterson’s Guide to the Birds and other acclaimed naturalist field guides. His work inspired Westervelt’s nature-journaling curriculum, which guides students as they “go outside and observe nature over time,” Westervelt explains. “They record what they see, using good observation skills and good drawing skills. At the end of the school year, they submit their nature journals to us: each school gets an award for the best journal at the Loudon Wildlife Conservancy annual meeting.”
The pandemic-era version of the course has ten pre-K-12 students gathering on one Monday a month for an asynchronous distance-learning school day at the trail. In addition to nature journaling, students are engaged in Phillips Farm ongoing citizen science programs that monitor the health of wildlife populations and their habitats. These include participating in programs such as Frog Watch for amphibians, Monarch Watch for butterflies, Virginia Bluebird Society’s Eastern bluebird nest box program, water quality monitoring of Catoctin Creek, and serving as litter-warriors in the annual Keep Loudoun Beautiful program.
Westervelt and Thompson plan to open the program to more students once pandemic restrictions are lifted. In the meantime, Westervelt isn’t showing signs of slowing down. “It’s just what I’ve always done, now I have more time to do it, and the urgency of preparing students to become good environmental decision-makers is becoming even more acute” she says. “This year they’ve started talking about summer school, so if they want to keep going, I’ll keep going with them.”
The Waterford Foundation welcomes volunteers to care for Phillips Farm and share its resources with the public. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved.
Parents of children who are interested in participating in the Peterson Young Naturalist program after pandemic restrictions are lifted can contact Stephanie Thompson at email@example.com.