This past summer, nine outdoor locations around Centre County were teeming with residents ready to experience nature firsthand. Responsible for this increased activity in Centre County parks and natural areas was Centred Outdoors, a project implemented by Clearwater Conservancy and the Sustainable Communities Collaborative (SCC) and funded by a Centre Foundation grant.
“The goal of Centred Outdoors is to engage and familiarize the community with the outdoors while encouraging healthy habits and the understanding of different non-profits in the area,” said Ilona Ballreich, the program manager for SCC.
Although at the forefront of Centred Outdoors were the stunning parks and natural areas of Centre County, behind the scenes, the project was a culmination of interdisciplinary efforts sourced from across Penn State and the surrounding community. Students and faculty members from the colleges of Arts and Architecture, Information Systems and Technology, Communications, Health and Human Development and Earth and Mineral Sciences were involved in various components of the project in the spring of 2017.
“The SCC sought out faculty and courses that had the capacity to inform components of the program,” Ballreich said.
Those involved in the program covered everything from graphics and promotions to data collection and evaluation for the benefit of both Centred Outdoors participants and the environment.
Graphic design students in GD 301, taught by Ryan Russell, associate professor of graphic design in the College of Arts and Architecture, competed to create a brand for the project. The final design was used in print, online and promotional materials.
Three undergraduate student interns from the College of Information Systems and Technology were hired to build Centred Outdoors’ online presence through a website, an app and social media.
For Celeste Tañega, the intern responsible for creating and maintaining the Centred Outdoors social media accounts, her role in the project connected her IST skills with her passion for nature.
“As a former Girl Scout, natural resources and ecological sites have always been in my interests,” Tañega said. “Camping and hiking are some of my favorite pastimes, so when an opportunity with Centred Outdoors came about, I became very excited.”
Tañega worked to populate Centred Outdoors’ social media sites per a social media calendar, created as a part of a complete public relations campaign developed by undergraduate students in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. Tara Wyckoff, lecturer of advertising and public relations, provided guidance for her students in COMM 473.
“One of my sections took on Centred Outdoors as their ‘class client,’” said Wyckoff. “The students met with the client to understand the situation, identify the public relations opportunity and ultimately craft a public relations campaign for the client to implement.”
In addition to building a social media strategy, the students in COMM 473 pitched a media relations plan to local media and engaged partners of Centred Outdoors through internal messaging. Wyckoff added that the course was very hands-on.
“The staff at the Clearwater Conservancy was excellent to work with and treated the class like an agency. I thought that this provided a very realistic, professional experience for the students, allowing them to leverage the skills they acquired over the course of their studies.”
Students enrolled in RPTM 433W, taught by Birgitta Baker, associate professor of recreation, park, and tourism management in the College of Health and Human Development, also got hands-on experience in their field through the Centred Outdoors project. The class evaluated and provided the health benefits of exploring each Centred Outdoors location.
The health of the environment was also addressed by Centred Outdoors. When Robert Brooks, professor of geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, was first approached to participate in the project, he said he was intrigued by the premise of the unique project.
Brooks, along with a group of nine graduate students in GEOG 550, researched the environmental health and ecosystem services of each outdoor location. Brooks said his class worked creatively all semester to find ways to estimate and portray the level of ecosystem services using existing data.
“Ecosystem services are components of nature, directly enjoyed, consumed or used to yield human well-being,” explained Brooks. “We chose to explore the following set of services for Centred Outdoors: carbon storage, floodwater storage, water quality, recreation, bird biodiversity and fish biodiversity.”
By the end of the semester, the students produced informative posters—which were displayed at the Campus and Community Sustainability Expo—as well as a technical report. Recently, Brooks collaborated with Andrea Murrell, the strategic communications coordinator at Clearwater Conservancy, on a nationally-sponsored webinar.
“I applaud all the partners in this exciting and informative effort by the community,” Brooks said. “We were lucky to be part of this truly original approach to replacing indoor ‘screen’ time with healthy experiences outdoors."
Although the results of the Centred Outdoors project were impressive—with over 1,200 miles explored by residents during the 2017 summer—Ilona Ballreich believes the greatest success of the project was the partnerships formed as a result.
“Through this project, SCC has a well-established relationship with Clearwater Conservancy. We’re engaged with them,” Ballreich said. “There is a stronger relationship between the University and the community, as well.”
Each and every effort involved in the Centred Outdoors project orbited around a single motivation—showcasing and encountering the natural landscapes of the region where Penn State lives. Ballreich said that the best thing about the project was experiencing the beautiful, natural places in Centre County in the company of other people.
“I went to Black Moshannon State Park for the first time during this project,” Ballreich said. “I loved it so much that I ended up returning three additional times with my family throughout the summer.”