By: Tiffany Whitfield

The 2023 Virginia Wildlife Grant funded through the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia (WFV) has been awarded to Biological Sciences Lecturer Julie Jo Walters at Old Dominion University. This $10,000 grant will help Walters to connect urban high school students with outdoor wildlife activities. Walters values the connections that can be made in the learning experience and is looking forward to imparting her knowledge of the outdoors to the next generation of scientists.

Walters was inspired to apply for this grant after conducting outreach activities for years at public schools in Portsmouth, Virginia. “I have found an interest and a need to connect students with the natural world,” said Walters. “I am excited by the opportunity to show high school students the wonders of the natural world right in their own backyard and hope that this program will ignite that spark that directs them into their future.”

Out of the 110 submissions received, Walters was one of 14 to get funding. Her project is titled, “Increasing Participation of Local Title 1 High School Students in Wildlife Activities.” “I will start with the establishment of a Wildlife Club at Churchland High School in Portsmouth,” said Walters. “We will use this club to connect underrepresented students to the outdoors through guided walks on the school campus to explore the biodiversity found around the high school.” ODU biological sciences faculty and graduate students will play a vital role in the outreach of this grant. Monarchs will visit the high school and introduce students to various types of research conducted with wildlife and showcase the types of research opportunities done at ODU. “We have so many talented high schoolers right here in Hampton Roads that may overlook ODU because they are not aware of the opportunities that we have to offer them,” said Walters. “These local students with an interest in animals and wildlife may first think of schools like Virginia Tech with their veterinary and wildlife programs, but I want to show them that ODU have many faculty right here studying wildlife too.”

Funding from the DWR/WFV grant will be used as a pilot to help determine the best methods to connect high school students to the outdoors. The ultimate goal is to develop similar programs at other high schools throughout the Hampton Roads area. Churchland High School students will get to start a program that will involve “establishing a pollinator garden, a feeding station for birds, and other planned activities (like field trips) that will further connect students to the natural world around them.”

Walters has begun to make in-roads with other community partners. “Vortex Optics have donated binoculars and other field gear like water bottles to support this program,” said Walters. “I am currently reaching out to other vendors to expand this support so we can leverage the funds from this grant to expand the program.”

Several ODU labs will also be working with students at Churchland High School. “I am working with the Avian Ecology Lab here at ODU on this project. Ella DiPietto, a second-year graduate student (and NSF Graduate Research Fellow), will partner with me as the co-lead on the project,” said Walters. ODU graduate students are looking forward to participating and sharing their research and field methods with these high school students. Eventually, ODU interested undergraduates will be recruited to join as mentors too.

“Representation is important, so the goal is to have a diverse group from ODU that interacts with the high schoolers,” said Walters. She is excited to extend opportunities to high school students, especially as they are considering their college and career paths. “Even if they choose a non-science discipline, they will be approaching life as naturalists and will hopefully continue to explore.”

Walters started at ODU as an adjunct in the fall of 2013, and her role has expanded to cover other classes such as ichthyology, invertebrate zoology as professors took leave. She currently holds a full-time role as a lecturer in biological sciences.

ODU provides a wonderfully supportive environment with many options for biological sciences students. “My favorite part of teaching is the interactions with the students and watching them find something in the course material that sparks an interest and gets them excited about what they are learning,” said Walters.