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Student gains hands-on conservation experience as McKinney Climate Fellow

Aug 4, 2023
A woman paints a bee frame.
A woman paints a bee frame.

KOKOMO, Ind. — As someone who enjoys the outdoors, Tera Gotschall plans a career in environmental preservation and restoration.

This summer, the Indiana University McKinney Climate Fellow (MCF) has learned first-hand what that might look like, working with the Indiana Forest Alliance, a nonprofit, statewide organization dedicated to the long-term health and well-being of the state’s native forests.

“I learned a lot about how nonprofits function and their importance in the environmental sector, dealing with complex issues that pop up rapidly,” said Gotschall, an IU Kokomo junior from Tipton. “I learned to deal with adaptations to projects daily. It was also great to get out in the field to learn about surveying for bees.”

She was one of 40 IU undergraduate or graduate students working with organizations statewide  to advance planet-positive goals through the MCF program, which connects IU students with local governments, businesses, and nonprofits in need of sustainability support. Entering its seventh year, the program has resulted in more than 200 student fellowships and upward of 64,000 hours of service to the state.

Gotschall began the program the week of May 22, attending climate camp with the other fellows, who represent four IU campuses and 11 schools. The camp included training on communication, environmental justice, professional writing, avoiding burnout, and more. The fellows also were introduced to digital tools, such as GIS and data visualization software that may be of use to them during their placement.

“Fellows join the program from a variety of backgrounds in education level, previous professional experiences, and sector-specific training,” said Elspeth Hayden, MCF program manager. “In just a few days, climate camp levels the playing field so that all our fellows start their summer work experience on the same foot.”

Gotschall worked for the Indiana Forest Alliance for 10 weeks, performing tasks ranging from identifying animal species in 14,000 photos taken with remote cameras and indexing the photos; breaking down a 60-page report on urban forest protection into smaller sections to give to people making decisions that impact forests; and completing eco-blitzes to determine the health of native animal species.

“I want to go into ecological restoration and environmental consulting, so I wanted to work with a partner that had some field work involved,” she said. “I really enjoyed that part of the work and would like to continue doing field work with them when I can.”

She especially enjoyed studying bee populations in the Hoosier National Forest, collecting samples to identify what types of bees live there. She’s also interested in a bat survey currently underway.

She worked a hybrid schedule, part-time virtually and part-time in the field, and learned she prefers to work fully in-person. She also learned the challenges that come with working in the nonprofit sector.

“There is an ebb and flow that comes with a nonprofit,” she said. “Sometimes they are doing a lot and they don’t always have the staff necessary to work on everything. I definitely learned to work in an environment where change is happening all the time.”

The MCF program is just the latest hands-on environmental opportunity available to Gotschall as an IU Kokomo student. She’s also been an intern in the campus Office of Sustainability, assisting in establishing the bee meadow last year, and currently is part of a team restoring a natural environment on campus, removing invasive plant species and replacing them with native plants.

Hayden said both the students and partnering organizations benefit from the program.

“From the student point of view, MCF is a formal, impactful way for young folks to use their knowledge and talents to make a difference in the world right here and right now,” she said. “From the other side, host organizations benefit from increased capacity on critical climate projects.”

Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.

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