One Professor’s Quest to Build Community Through Birding Takes Flight

A University of Vermont class that combines ecology, social justice, and mentorship is having ripple effects through local schools—and beyond.
Professor Trish O'Kane, a woman wearing glasses and a pink and green jacket, stands in a wooded grove in Burlington, Vermont, where she taught an outdoor class during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was the spring of 2016, and Trish O’Kane, a college professor, sat in Flynn Elementary School’s auditorium in Burlington, Vermont. When a student who was typically very shy volunteered to take the stage, O’Kane was as proud as a parent. In front of hundreds of classmates and with a mentor by her side, the girl demonstrated the lively sounds of a chickadee’s call. For the next week, O’Kane was tickled to learn, the kids used their newfound avian knowledge to annoy their teachers. 

O’Kane’s class, Birding to Change the World, helped facilitate that moment. In the University of Vermont (UVM) course, O’Kane teaches undergraduates about ornithology, outdoor education, and activism, and then helps them put their lessons into practice: The college students mentor the Flynn Elementary kids and take them birding. Her goal is to build a community of young people across age groups who will advocate for all the inhabitants of Burlington—avian and human alike. “If you make the kids the stewards of a place, the guardians of a place and its birds, they will speak up for it,” O’Kane says.  

Versions of Birding to Change the World are now taught at three universities, including University of Wisconsin-Madison, where O’Kane first developed the course, and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where another professor was inspired to adapt it. The curriculum reflects how birding and conservation are intertwined with social justice issues. In a given week, students might learn to identify local bird calls and work through real-life issues, such as discussing how racism and implicit bias influences who can enjoy the outdoors without fear and how that may affect children in the program.

Long before O’Kane loved birds, she was passionate about social justice. In the 1990s she moved to Central America as an investigative human rights reporter for Time and The San Francisco Chronicle. There, she covered the extended aftermath of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua and Guatemala, interviewing refugees and others who had witnessed or experienced atrocities. Nature was the last thing on her mind: “Where the hell do birds come into that?” She saw scientists parachute into the conflict-scarred regions and felt angry when they paid attention to animals instead of people.

She returned to the United States after a decade of living abroad, burned out on reporting brutal stories on deadline. She researched hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center and led writing workshops at a women’s prison. To her surprise, she loved teaching. “That’s how I started to find my way,” she says. “This is going to be my way of changing the world, and this is going to repair my soul.” In 2005 she started teaching journalism at a local college in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina hit the following month.

Five weeks after the storm, O’Kane stood in her destroyed home. That day she noticed birds—little brown sparrows in her backyard—as she never had before. In spite of the hurricane’s devastation, she saw that the birds persisted.

Around one dozen University of Vermont college students wearing face masks and binoculars around their necks walk down a road lined with brown trees during an outdoor class in Spring 2021.

Those events inspired O’Kane to return to school herself. She began a Ph.D. in ecology at UW-Madison in 2007, where she also began teaching Birding to Change the World. Mentorship was part of her vision from the start. In Madison, she matched 123 of her undergrads with more than 250 middle school students, the majority of whom were Latinx. Now in Burlington, O’Kane takes applications for her course from UVM students, screens and trains them to work with young kids, and then partners them with mentees from Flynn Elementary through a weekly after-school club.

“At first, it wasn’t hugely popular,” admits Mandi Harris, a coordinator at Flynn. But by the second year, kids clamored to join, eager to meet the cool older college students who came by each week. By the third year, it had grown so much that Flynn Elementary stopped offering other programming on Wednesdays.

Now, the club serves a deeper purpose than birding.

Now, the club serves a deeper purpose than birding, says UVM senior and class alum Mary Lynch. Elementary-age kids confide in their college mentors about dealing with trauma, bullying, and absent parents. Kids who hate physical exercise start running to and from the park. Before joining, some nonwhite elementary students had rarely seen people who looked like them using Burlington’s parks, woods, and beaches, according to OKane and Lynch. And, O’Kane notes, some Flynn students are from international families that arrived in Vermont relatively recently. (Vermont is more than 94 percent white but the Burlington area is home to families from all over the world, in part because of decades-old refugee resettlement efforts.) Through birding, the kids got to know local outdoor spaces and brought their families. One boy now takes his bike to bird independently. “He wouldn’t be out in the woods multiple days a week had it not been for the class,” Harris says.

College students find the program transformative, too. “It completely changed how I approach environmental education,” says Lynch, who majors in that area. “I realized my job isn’t to make the kids ‘eco-warriors.’ My job is to make sure they build a positive relationship with the outdoors.” Some UVM students, like senior Maddie Matthew, became birders through the class; in spring 2020 she briefly became an eBird celebrity after posting a Western Tanager sighting in her parents’ Pennsylvania backyard.  

A University of Vermont student with brown hair and wearing a blue long-sleeved shirt reaches up the trunk of a big tree to attach a cut-out drawing of a bird as part of a scavenger hunt activity planned for Flynn Elementary School mentees.

The curriculum for Birding to Change the World is still evolving: Semester to semester, no syllabus is the same. At first it resembled an ornithology class with some discussion of privilege and race thrown in, O’Kane says. Over the years, she has made more space for reflections on issues of inequality, inclusivity, and access. Students are asked to engage with local news and follow stories about racism and police brutality; a recent syllabus included oral histories of refugees living in Vermont, and J. Drew Lanham’s memoir of his experience as a Black birder and scientist. Lanham, a contributor to Audubon, also provided feedback that helped O’Kane design the course.

When the pandemic hit in spring 2020, UVM students were sent home. The class adapted by creating guides to local species and recreational areas for their mentees’ families. O’Kane also paired 200 UVM students with Audubon offices and chapters, to bird together on various video platforms. Back on campus during the 2020-2021 academic year, UVM students still couldn’t go to Flynn in person because of ongoing restrictions. They created videos, set up scavenger hunts in the woods, and exchanged letters with mentees—and younger grade levels got to participate for the first time. O’Kane plans to keep some of these creative tactics, even when in-person visits are possible again.

In the future O’Kane and her students hope to expand the program to other age groups. That work has already begun: Gracie Harvey, a 2018 UVM graduate and O’Kane’s former student, now oversees after-school enrichment at Hunt Middle School, which Flynn kids attend after fifth grade. Harvey has hired some Birding to Change the World alums as mentors and launched a summer birding program designed with accessibility in mind. Eventually the goal is to expand to high schools, creating a mentorship pipeline that spans from elementary school to college.

For the first time in a decade, O’Kane won’t teach Birding to Change the World this fall. Instead, she’ll be on sabbatical, writing a book about the class. She hopes readers will be inspired to use the curriculum in their own communities. After all, that’s what the course is about: not just educating a few young people, but training them to catalyze change.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2021 issue as “A Bond Across Ages.”​ To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.