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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux

Some students who learn about the environment might do so through a textbook or video.

For a select group of South Orange County teens, they get to do so by visiting an outdoor preserve close to home.

The Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo has started an internship program for junior and senior high school students that gives them a direct opportunity to explore nature and learn about natural resources—particularly, being mindful of conservation when it comes to resources.

Local high school students are getting hands-on environmental science education at The Reserve in Rancho Mission Viejo. Photo: Aimée Nighswonger.

Laura Coley Eisenberg, Executive Director for The Reserve, said the program developed because there can be a gap when it comes to professional real-world experience for kids. Wanting to give an opportunity for direct learning and inspiration for local youngsters, Aimée Nighswonger—Interpretive Naturalist at The Reserve—put the program together.

Students collect field data and use scientific tools as part of the program, which has included measuring and identifying trees and plants.

“We want to expose students to different career options in the environmental field,” Nighswonger said.

As part of the application process for the program, students have to write an essay and then be interviewed by Reserve officials—further preparing them for the adult working world.

“For most of them, it was their first interview,” Nighswonger said.

The teens did several different excursions at The Reserve during the program—which started in October—and finished the program with a final project. Each excursion—one of which was down at San Juan Creek—was guided by a professional specialist that works at The Reserve. The interns also got to handle social media activity for The Reserve.

“These interns, they’re learning—whether it’s water management or tree management—they’re learning from an expert in the field,” Nighswonger said.

“The interns literally got their feet wet,” Eisenberg quipped.

Currently there are eight students, all female, in the program. It complements a range of other programs at The Reserve that include docent-led tours.

Alyssa Boutelle, a 17-year-old intern in San Juan Capistrano, said the program helped her understand available opportunities for environmental science careers.

“I kind of got an introduction to networking, in a way,” Boutelle said.

She also became more aware of the plants and animals in her area, learned about the effects of non-native species on land, and is now interested in water conservation.

Based on the feedback from the interns, Eisenberg said they look forward to repeating the program next year.

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at

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