Connecting with Nature: Enhancing Well-being and Community Engagement through Student-Led Initiatives

In Dr. Sam Smith's Psychology of Nature course at Michigan Technological University (MTU), students not only explore how connections with nature can enhance human well-being, but they also apply their learning to benefit the community by partnering with the Keweenaw Land Trust (KLT). As part of the course requirements, students undertake a service-learning project, with KLT serving as this year's community partner and beneficiary. This partnership allows students to gain practical experience by working alongside professionals, while providing KLT with additional support and capacity. 

KLT staff members, Botanist and Stewardship Manager Jill Fisher, and Communications and Program Specialist, B Lauer, collaborated closely with the undergraduate students. They tailored projects that aligned with the students' interests while also fulfilling the needs of KLT. 

KLT greatly values this partnership as it not only enhances our operational capacity but also plays a crucial role in nurturing future environmental stewards. Through their projects, students contributed to the execution of KLT's mission and helped increase organizational impact within the local community. The course was structured such that students were divided into groups, each working on separate projects designed to directly support KLT’s objectives. 

One group of students banded together to plan and organize a Family Fun Day at KLT’s Marsin Nature Retreat. The event saw around 30 eager children accompanied by their adults, partaking in an enriching day of nature-based activities organized by MTU students. The event was filled with a spirit of exploration and creativity, fulfilling its aim of connecting the local community with the natural world and providing an engaging outdoor activity for children during their spring break from school. 

The day kicked off with a scavenger hunt that guided children and their families across the diverse terrain of the property. Post scavenger hunt, a restful lunch and snack period provided a perfect segue into the creative highlight of the day—making DIY pinecone bird feeders and beautifully painted rock masterpieces. Using the items they collected, the children unleashed their creativity, crafting items that would not only serve as memorable takeaways but also as functional enhancements to their backyard ecosystems. As the crafting session wound down, student organizers gathered the children for story time, reading from a selection of books provided by KLT staff, which added an educational wrap-up to the day’s festivities. 

Reflecting on the event, one of the student organizers remarked, “The family fun day project/event helped connect others to nature by featuring activities like bird feeder making and scavenger hunts. This is important because nature provides kids with rich sensory stimulation and an opportunity for creativity and imagination. The family fun day event/project benefited the community by providing parents a fun opportunity to bring their kids to and experience all the benefits of nature.” Another student appreciated the dual benefit of the event, noting, “I also enjoyed having a space to be creative while also giving back to the community.” The organizational efforts behind such an event were not lost on the students, as one organizer observed, “After doing this project, I gained a little bit of insight on what great lengths the people of Keweenaw Land Trust go to to set up events like this because this took a lot of work for being such a small event.” 

Perhaps one of the most heartwarming anecdotes came from a volunteer who shared a touching interaction: “[When] working on Family Fun Day, there was one child in particular who I won’t forget. We had a mix of indoor and outdoor activities. When it was time to transition from the outdoor activity to the indoor activity, he absolutely did not want to go inside. He told me that all he wanted to do for the rest of the day was stay outside. This really opened my eyes to how important nature is not just for children, but adults as well. I think as we get older, a lot of people tend to lose the magic of the outdoors, and this reminded me how we innately want to be outdoors, and shouldn’t lose the love we have of nature.” This anecdote poignantly captures the essence of Family Fun Day: reigniting the intrinsic joy and wonder of being outdoors. It also serves as a reminder of how critical it is to preserve access to natural spaces for future generations to enjoy as freely as the children did during the event. 

Another group planned and led a mindfulness-oriented hike for MTU students at Hungarian Falls. On a radiant spring day, a small group including the three student organizers, four hikers, and KLT staff member B, embarked on a grounding exploration around one of KLT’s most visited nature areas. This hike was not just a journey through nature, but an educational venture interwoven with lessons from the Psychology of Nature course.  

As they meandered through the lush landscapes, the students discussed various aspects of their learning such as nature bathing, engaging senses, and the concept of releasing one's inner child to fully immerse in the moment. The integration of academic insights was further enriched by students sharing knowledge from their specific fields of study and of the history of the area, enhancing everyone's understanding and appreciation of the landscape. 

The atmosphere throughout the hike was buoyantly positive, as highlighted by one of the student organizers: “What I liked best about the Hungarian Falls Hike was the fact that everyone was smiling and it was always positive. There is no other remedy such as nature that can do this.” The participant further emphasized the importance of actively contributing to the conservation of local natural spaces, recognizing the ripple effect such actions can initiate: “This is why it is particularly important to give your utmost effort to help (macro or micro scale) your local nature environment—whether that’s your backyard or some park nearby—in any way you see beneficial. Why? Because your action establishes a domino effect for other nature environments that ultimately benefit other interactions and consequently us. It’s amazing that nature is the only thing that can achieve this and yet we seem to take it for granted.” 

Another student organizer reflected on the collective enthusiasm, saying “I loved to see the students get as excited as I was to be outside and see them open up over the course of the hike. I truly think nature brings people together and putting on group hikes like these... should be something that becomes a regular thing around Tech.” The educational component of the hike was pivotal in deepening the participants’ connection to nature. Capturing KLT’s view of the importance of connecting the community with natural spaces, one student noted, “I think it's important to connect and get others connected to nature so they have a deeper appreciation for our earth. Connecting to what we discussed in class... as well the more appreciation one has for the outdoors, the more one will do to protect it as well.” 

Digital communications are a crucial part of KLT’s work: Communicating the conservation value of the Keweenaw and sharing the beauty of KLT’s protected areas. One group of students engaged in a project that was as valuable as it was visionary—creating digital media to spotlight the conservation value and stunning natural beauty of KLT’s protected areas. Each student visited various KLT nature areas, capturing the essence of these landscapes through photography and videography, and penned brief descriptions of their experiences to accompany the visual representations. This content serves multiple purposes. Firstly, it enriches KLT’s digital communications, helping to convey the importance of conservation and the unique allure of the Keweenaw. Secondly, this content acts as an invitation to the wider community, encouraging them to visit and connect with these preserved areas and, hopefully, become advocates for their continued protection. 

One student content creator offered this reflection on the project: “What I liked best about contributing to the KLT social media content was being able to share my photos and positive experiences with other people. Knowing that other people will be able to go to these places and benefit from them gives me a lot of enjoyment from this process. Overall, I had a really good experience from this project and I will definitely have to visit more of the KLT’s locations again.” Another student reflected on the personal impact of the experience stating, “This project deepened my appreciation for the hidden treasures within the Keweenaw. In our everyday routines of home, work, or school, I often forget to appreciate the beautiful nature around us. I am happy that this project not only enriched my personal connection with nature but also holds the potential to resonate with others in our community, whether through social media or in the great outdoors.” 

Through their work, the student content creators not only advanced their own understanding and appreciation of local natural spaces, but also contributed significantly to KLT’s mission. This sentiment was powerfully summed up by one student content creator: “Working with KLT allowed me to connect with these previously unknown natural areas, and, through their documentation, allow them to be further showcased for others to see as well. I think that the aspect of broadening this reach to others is such an important piece in not only the benefits of nature exposure shown in class, but also bringing to light the importance of conservation to the public, which certainly makes my future as an environmental engineer a little easier if the public can see this beauty.” 

One student wanted a more hands-on stewardship-oriented project. This student worked with Stewardship Manager, Jill to organize a small group of students to pull weeds and improve the area around the Boston Pond Pavilion. This student shared, “I was inspired to look for a project that was unique and would involve doing hands-on work to benefit the community.” Reflecting on the experience, the student added, “Given the opportunity to figure out a project to work on through the KLT, I learned that there are likely many opportunities out there for me to help out if I take the initiative and reach out to ask... going out of our way to help out, work together, and spend time with nature, my group and I learned that it’s enjoyable and rewarding to go out and help others, as well as spend time in nature.” 

At the Keweenaw Land Trust, we are deeply grateful for the collaboration and energy that the students from MTU have brought into our shared projects. Their enthusiasm, creativity, and willingness to engage in hands-on work have immensely enriched our conservation efforts and community outreach. Whether it was through digital media creation that shared the beauty and importance of our nature areas, or through direct environmental stewardship activities like the cleanup and enhancement of the Boston Pond Pavilion, these ambitious students have played a pivotal role in advancing our mission. Their projects not only help preserve the natural beauty of the Keweenaw but also ensure that these environments continue to inspire and nurture local community members and visitors alike. We are grateful for this partnership and look forward to continuing to work together to protect our shared landscapes, engage the public, and foster a deeper appreciation and connection with the natural world.