Event recap: Frontiers in Ornithology Symposium for Youth
At a Glance
Date: September 28, 2019
Location: Ashland Nature Center, Hockessin, DE, USA
Summary: The first-ever Frontiers in Ornithology Symposium was a day packed full of speakers, panel discussions, and networking opportunities for young people (ages 13-22) who are interested in pursuing ornithology studies and careers.
My involvement: I came on to the FOS planning team in the spring of 2019. Through Nighthawk, I provided marketing assistance, design services, and media coverage of the event.
Fun fact: This event is the brainchild of four inspired conservationists who brainstormed the concept of a youth symposium exactly one year prior to the event at the American Birding Expo.
From Dream to Reality—Pronto!
The origin of the Frontiers in Ornithology Symposium now feels like common knowledge to me after such intense involvement in the event over the past few months. But if you haven’t heard about this event and the motivation behind it yet, that’s because the idea was only conceived a year ago. Chris Eberly and MT Grob were at the 2018 American Birding Expo outside of Philadelphia discussing the idea of an event specifically for ornithologists—more specifically, aspiring ornithologists. In the excitement of the idea of the sorely needed event, they connected with Bill Stewart and Holly Merker, who were also at the Expo. On a cocktail napkin over drinks that night, the Frontiers in Ornithology Symposium was born.
The ideas came together quickly, with Ashland Nature Center in Delaware chosen as the location for the event. Joe Sebastiani, the Manager of Ashland, joined the team to help with the event’s logistics. But most importantly, dozens of leaders in the ornithology field accepted invitations to speak—with no compensation for their time and efforts. Pulitzer-prize nominated, ground-breaking researcher, and all-around badass human Scott Weidensaul instantly agreed to be the keynote speaker. Claire Wayner and Patrick Newcombe, two incredibly inspiring ornithology and conservation activists, joined the lineup as youth keynotes. Panelists signed up, volunteers came forward, and the details began falling into place.
Funding for this event was crucial, especially to keep the costs low for young attendees. Beyond the organizations of the planning team, additional sponsors were needed. Zeiss came forward and made a donation to the event that really made it able to come to life (this is just one of many ways that Zeiss has supported youth through the years). Seeing the importance of the event, other sponsors came on board, and the symposium planning sped on.
I first heard about the plans for the symposium through Bill Stewart, whom I have known for several years. We had met on several occasions, but what stands out in my memories of him was listening to a presentation he gave about the preservation of Delaware’s shoreline during a Bird Watcher’s Digest Reader Rendezvous in 2016. I’ve been lucky to hear many speakers in the birding realm at various events so far in my career, but Bill’s presentation stands out in my mind as one of the most passionate conveyances of the importance of conservation that I’ve heard. It was impossible to resist working alongside Bill and the rest of the inspiring FOS team. Beyond that, in another life, I was pursuing a career in education. My parents are both teachers, and increasing the quality of education is something I’ve always cared deeply about (that’s another story). Combining my passions and helping to provide something that helped kids find their way in this field felt like an alignment of stars for me, and I jumped on board.
We spend the summer refining the details of the symposium, getting the word out, and hoping that our work would pay off. The event was to be capped at 150 participants, if we could fill the spots. The cost to attend was only $25 to make the event as accessible as possible, and adults could only attend if they were accompanying youth. In August, registrations started to come in. By September, school groups started forming, with some colleges bringing a van full of students to experience the day. The week before the event, it sold out. And all of a sudden, it was happening!
The objective of the symposium was to focus on ornithology, conservation science, and related academic pursuits. The focus was not on birding, bird identification techniques, or listing birds, but instead on cutting-edge technologies being used in avian research and study, careers in ornithology and how to pursue that focus in either higher education, vocationally or avocationally. The goal was to educate and inspire youth to take their passion for birds to a higher level, and the speakers for the event reflected that goal.
September 28th dawned warm and sunny as dozens of youth gathered at Ashland for some pre-event birding with Ashland Nature Center staff and some of the speakers. When the event officially began, the large room was standing-room only, and the excitement was palpable. After opening remarks, the day set off at breakneck pace. Participants chose between two congruent 20-minute sessions for the first few hours of the event before a break to learn about bird banding and participate in a hawk watch, both ongoing practices at Ashland. Then, the entire group joined together to listen to the youth keynotes. And that was all before lunch!
The afternoon was filled with more speaker sessions. Panel discussions were interspersed throughout the speakers, offering varying opinions and dynamic discussions on select topics, such as changes in the field of ornithology in recent years and “navigating the flyway” to becoming an avian scientist. The day ended with a moving keynote presentation by Scott Weidensaul.
The event was spectacular. I am saying that as one of the organizers, but still, I say it with confidence. Throughout the day, I was taking photos and videos to document the event, and overhearing some of the conversations of the participants brought me to joyous tears. These youth were getting the opportunity to learn from their idols—to hear about these speakers’ journeys, what their careers and daily activities were like, and even got guidance on how to pursue their passions. But what really made it special is that they were getting that experience alongside a hundred other kids who had the same dreams. Participants were swapping their personal stories, talking about their hopes and challenges and dream jobs, and exchanging contact information to stay in touch after the event. During lunch, there were dozens of picnic tables filled with new friends. The sound of so many conversations was incredible. At the end of the event, the room buzzed long after the closing remarks with participants connecting with each other and the speakers in candid conversations. Even as I write this, I am still moved by what I saw that day, and can’t wait to do it all again next year.
Continuing the Event
The 2020 Frontiers in Ornithology Symposium will be on September 26 at the Ashland Nature Center, Hockessin, DE. We’re in the early planning stages right now, but I can say that the event will be very similar in structure with some minor tweaks in the format. We’re planning to provide even more networking and social opportunities during the event, some more interactive presentations, and will be looking at some different perspectives of the world of avian science. If you have questions about the event, or are interested in participating or donating to the symposium, check out the Frontiers website or send me a message.