Pepperwood Preserve's summer program trains teens to study nature

Teens train as naturalists in Pepperwood Preserve’s summer program near Santa Rosa.|

Attired in chest-high waders shared within the group, Livermore High School student Austin Zermeño leaned into the deepening pond water, struggling forward against a mostly submerged mat of tangled weeds that slowed his progress into the center.

Nearby, another of Pepperwood Preserve's summer interns belly-crawled across the pond's marshy edge, her jeans soaking up the moisture as she peered into the rushes for signs of life until her curiosity drew her so far in she was standing thigh-deep in water.

Other teens prowled or squatted nearby, digital cameras and satellite navigation devices in hand, as they documented the flora and fauna of the pond high above Santa Rosa on a ridgeline in the Mayacamas Mountains.

Their findings included a praying mantis, an egg-laden spider, loads of tiny Sierran choral frogs and a pale-blue-bellied garter snake that proved highly popular among the teens, several of whom marveled at how “chill” the creature remained as each held it for several minutes in turn.

In a world preoccupied by Pokémon Go and the trappings of human invention, this is how 23 mostly Sonoma County youths spent the better part of summer - learning about the wildlife just beyond home using established fieldwork techniques and contributing to collective scientific knowledge by documenting what they found.

They are part of Pepperwood Preserve's four-year-old TeenNat world, a youth program for ages 13 to 18 designed to expose young people to outdoor exploration and the possibility of professions in the natural sciences.

The program, which this year drew about 85 applicants, was developed partly in response to a deficit of opportunities for teens in Sonoma County, as well as a national 2012 presidential report forecasting a need for an additional 1 million college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math over the next decade, according to Sandi Funke, education director for Pepperwood Preserve. Acceptance into the program also is influenced by studies showing that women and people of color are under-represented in environmental fields.

The TeenNat program provides participants an opportunity to experience hands-on, real-world science and to learn about the many science-related occupations - from researcher to park ranger, landscape architect to water engineer - at a time when they are working to discover their place in the world, Funke said.

“It's so much fun,” said Madison Glenn, 15, a student at Sonoma Academy. “It's really cool.”

The five-week summer internship is the launching point for a long-term relationship between individual applicants and preserve staff, which also offer networking, mentorship, volunteer and citizen science opportunities, structured field trips during the school season and other forms of guidance, according to Sandi Funke, education director for the nonprofit.

TeenNat alumni also can work as summertime assistants, Funke said. Additionally, two alumni, both college students, are serving as paid staff this year.

“The idea is that we're building a pipeline to conservation careers,” Funke said.

During summer, the kids meet three days a week over five weeks, ending Thursday, Aug. 4, at the more than 3,100-acre preserve above Porter Creek Road, attending seminars in conservation science seminars, learning the ins and outs of field work, exploring diverse habitats and contributing observations to, a digital science database.

Observations verified by two people can then be loaded to the Global Biodiversity Information System, which has catalogued more than 1.6 million individual plant and animal species worldwide and is the world's largest repository of biodiversity data, Funke said.

Working in one of California's eastern-most redwood groves, the interns also contribute to a Save the Redwoods League monitoring program for sword ferns and how they react to climate change.

“We really want them to see themselves as knowledge makers ... as creators of the information and knowledge around us,” Funke said.

Participants also are encouraged to sketch their observations, in addition to making photographs, some of which will be exhibited gallery at the preserve's Dwight Center beginning with a reception for friends and family.

The TeenNat program, subsidized by community sponsors, is free to participants. Eighty-two people took part during the first thee years.

Among them are Piner High School graduate Aidan Carpenter, 17, who joined the program after his freshman year of high school and who, this fall, will attend UC Davis, majoring in biological studies - a choice he said was strongly influenced by his TeenNat experience. He has volunteered for the program each of the last three summers.

“I loved it so much, I just wanted to come back and help,” Carpenter said.

Another alum, an avid birder and Santa Rosa Junior College biology student named Mario Balitbit, is working as a paid assistant this year, complementing his job as shift supervisor at the Bird Rescue Center in Santa Rosa. He was also lead garter snake wrangler on a recent field day at the preserve, where he showed younger interns the snake's intricate markings and the vent near its tail, and explained how they could alternate their hands, allowing the creature to kind of roll over the top so they wouldn't have to grip it.

“This is a great place for experience,” Balitbit said.

More information is available at

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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