Service Learning Feature: Zachary Forster

10-10-13 0 By: Shelly Sutley

The “Social Media Coordinator” Service Learning project, offered to UW-Eau Claire students, needed a student that was knowledgeable and resourceful with his or her technological knowledge. Zachary Forster, “Social Media Coordinator,” joined our efforts at BluebirdExperience.com, and demonstrated his blog and WordPress development, planning, testing, and execution skills.  Zachary was such a perfect asset to our team, by demonstrating technical strength and using his knowledge creatively through excellent writing skills.

Zachary sees things differently than I do, which I find joyful, because it allows the collaboration to be creative.  He deals well with roadblocks in programming and is adaptable and practical at the same time.  These unexpected qualities in Zachary helped streamline everyone’s efforts.

He also asked great questions in an insightful and thoughtful manner, demonstrating dedication in following through with the project, in order to learn more. Zachary’s dedication demonstrates his powerful problem solving skills.  I see success in him, as his communication and listening skills are precise, and produce results.

Connecting, collaborating and creating Zachary Forster has been honor! In his own words, here is Zachary’s ‘Bluebird Experience.’

My Bluebird Experience

By Zachary Forster

I could have chosen any one of the numerous service learning projects specifically tailored to Computer Science students.  Many were quite similar to the work that I did for the Bluebird Restoration Project, requiring students to maintain Web sites or to offer technological consultation.  Others, such as the service learning requirement built into Software Engineering II, may have provided me with a higher level of work experience when compared to my current project.  However, these were not necessarily the things that were important to me in my search for a fitting service learning project.

What was I searching for?  I can sum this up with two points.  First and foremost, I wanted to lend my services to a group that was making a difference in the community, as opposed to a for-profit business.  It was important to me that the people with whom I collaborated had a clear vision, and that they were passionate enough to achieve that vision.  Essentially, I wanted to have some observable effect on my community, and I needed help from passionate people to do it.  I did not want my efforts to benefit a single organization; this is what internships are for.  Second, it was very important to me that my assistance was actually necessary and valuable.  I definitely wished to avoid a job which was fabricated solely so that I could do it.  Of all of the service learning opportunities which I investigated, the one offered by the Bluebird Experience group was most certainly the best fit for me.

When I first met Shelly Sutley, the founder of the Bluebird restoration project, I was immediately stricken by her passion.  Shelly was passionate about children, nature, students, and nearly everything else.  I thought that it was incredible that an activity as simple as maintaining bluebird nest boxes could be used to affect the community in so many different ways.  This simple project fosters a love of nature in children, creates service learning and nature education opportunities for students, and provides valuable data to environmental and scientist groups.  Frankly, I was shocked when I learned that the data that these children were collecting (i.e. the number of birds and eggs in each nest box) were being used at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  The project had started out on a small scale, but after gaining publicity and the attention of the university, the responsibilities of Shelly and the Bluebird Babes exploded.  She was juggling all manor of tasks and meetings, and so I could instantly tell that this was a place where I could make a difference, and where my help was appreciated.  I would focus on the maintenance of the Web site so that Shelly could concentrate on organizing efforts to nurture both a species and a community.

Throughout the summer, I found myself moderating, organizing, and creating posts on the blog.  As I read over information flowing from interviews and articles across the Internet, I realized that I had succeeded in choosing an organization which was wholly invested in the community.  I read about how individuals, working on the Bluebird Experience team, had succeeded in rallying student volunteers, piloting a new curriculum at local Catholic high schools, and introducing the new honors course, Civic Agency: Restoring Bluebird Habitats, to UW – Eau Claire.  I read about the nest box trails created at local golf courses and at the Beaver Creek Reserve, and about how the “bluebird experience” inspired one aspiring Eagle Scout to create one of these trails to benefit his community.  Most important to me, as I hope to someday end up teaching, was the way that the Bluebird Restoration project could be used as a nature and health education outlet for children.  As I learned about the project’s foundations and history, I was impressed by the way that this organization was able to spread the excitement and inspiration of its leaders to the individuals around it, and I was grateful to be a part of spreading this inspiration via social media.

It may be that I seem strongly focused on the “service” in “service learning,” but this is not to say that I did not learn valuable skills.  On the contrary, I actually have quite the list.  Long distance communication played a paramount role in my position as Social Media Coordinator.  I was working in Madison for an internship this summer, and so with my two contacts, Shelly and Andra Christianson, based in Eau Claire, I had to accurately interpret their needs with minimal face to face contact.  This is a skill which can be absolutely invaluable in the software development world, since email correspondence and brief video conferences are such prevalent forms of customer interaction.

In addition to communication, I was also able to become familiar with WordPress, which happens to be one of the most widely used personal and small business blogging platforms on the Web.  In some small measure, I even had the chance to make use of some of the material on PHP that I had covered the previous semester in my Web Programming class.  Finally, and although I certainly did not feel this way at the time, I am delighted to say that I received the chance to see how I work under pressure.  Granted, this was not the insane pressure of a missed deadline for a mission-critical project, but it was pressure nonetheless.  It will suffice to say that, due to my clumsy hands, an over-sensitive touchpad, and an inability to realize what I had done until I had already committed my changes, I broke  a Web site on which I had been working.  The issue was that I was not familiar enough with the code to remember exactly what it was that I had deleted.  Fortunately, I was able to work through the issue and restore functionality, and in the long run, I was left grateful for the experience.

All in all, this project was a fantastic experience for me.  I became a part of a community-centric organization, had the chance to facilitate the spreading of the news about what this group has accomplished and is accomplishing, and learned some practical lessons along the way.  It seems to me that this is exactly what service learning should be.

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