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First-of-its-Kind Project with Irvine Ranch Conservancy Brings Elementary School Through College Students Together for Habitat Restoration Research

The pilot project is a collaborative partnership between Irvine Ranch Conservancy, UC Irvine’s Center for Environmental Biology and Inside the Outdoors. 

Students of all ages are coming together for one common goal, to help restore Orange County’s native lands. A collaborative partnership between Irvine Ranch Conservancy (IRC), UC Irvine’s Center for Environmental Biology (UCI CEB) and the Orange County Department of Education’s Inside the Outdoors (ITO) is engaging elementary school through college students in restoration ecology.

The pilot project is part of the UCI CEB Internship Program where a cohort of undergraduate students develop a “Project of the Year,” to design, implement, and collect data for an experiment. In addition to helping the students learn about ecological research, the project will help inform restoration ecologists on the best microhabitat conditions for restoring oak woodlands impacted by drought and wildfire in OC Parks’ Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve, managed by IRC.

To achieve this, IRC collaborated with its partners at the Delhi Center, a community-based non-profit in Santa Ana that serves under resourced youth and families.  IRC built a nursery at the Delhi Center so that youth could grow and learn about local native plants. This project also provided an opportunity for elementary through high school students to contribute to original research alongside university students. Once grown at the Delhi Center nursery, oak seedlings, acorns, and white sage were planted by Delhi students and UCI CEB interns at several research plots in OC Parks’ Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve.  ITO, the environmental education program administered by OCDE, whose mission is to empower individuals to explore natural areas and expand their knowledge, understanding and stewardship of the environment, contributed to the project by providing an immersive curriculum led by staff naturalists. It was a priority for all organizations to integrate students of all ages into UCI CEB Interns’ “Project of the Year.”

“We are thrilled to see students from diverse grade levels working together towards a shared mission of restoring Orange County’s native lands,” said Kelley Brugmann, Community Engagement and Education Program Manager at IRC. “By involving elementary through college-aged students in restoration ecology, we are not only nurturing a love for our local environment but also fostering scientific research opportunities that will shape the future of restoration efforts in our community.”

At the beginning of the project, UCI CEB personnel, Drs. Sarah Kimball and Jennifer Long, guided interns to form research questions related to the restoration of oak woodlands in collaboration with Eliza Hernández, Monitoring and Research Program Manager at IRC. These questions included determining the life history stage that yields the highest planting success (acorns or seedlings), identifying which microclimate conditions are best for planting (under oak canopy, under fallen oak, outside of oak canopy), and investigating whether young oaks thrive more with or without companion plantings like white sage. Delhi Center students, ranging from first graders to high schoolers, nurtured the oak and white sage seedlings to help test the project’s main research questions.

Over a few months, IRC staff and the UCI and Delhi Center students from all grade levels collaborated to identify project sites at Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve. They then prepared the sites and planted the seedlings and acorns at eight different locations. Throughout this process, the students collected data and, during the most recent field trip in April, were thrilled to discover oak seedlings sprouting from the acorns they had planted just a few weeks earlier. “Having the students witness the progress of the oak plantings was amazing; they are seeing their efforts pay off in real time! This project has really sparked their interest in science and nature, and they all can’t wait to get back out on the land,” said Miguel Torres, Youth Program Manager for the Delhi Center.

“My favorite part has been having each collaborator bring their own expertise and skills to this project. I have learned so much from everyone involved with this project, and it has been great to share that knowledge with the CEB interns and Delhi Center students with whom we have been fortunate enough to work with,” comments Haley Heesch, a Field Technician with UCI’s Center for Environmental Biology and the main lead in coordinating the project along with Eliza Hernández.

Significant progress has been made in the restoration work, and valuable data has been collected at Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve due to the commitment and dedication of students from various grade levels and communities. The mission of this project is to “plant the seed” for children, teenagers, and young adults, fostering a long-lasting connection with our native land.

Looking ahead to the future, the vision for this program extends beyond a single project. IRC, UCI CEB, and ITO are dedicated to continuing and expanding this impactful collaborative project in the years to come.

For more information on various community engagement and education programs, enacted by IRC, please visit irconservancy.org.

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