Where Are They Now?

A report on several past Seeds for Education grant recipients.  

By Celia Larsen
Over a year ago, a fellow Wild One handed off to me an envelope full of “year end reports” written by past Seeds for Education grant recipients. The task seemed easy enough – contact the project managers at the six different sites and see how their outdoor education areas had been maturing over the last three years.  All but one responded to my request for information, although changes in personnel and e-mail addresses required a bit of sleuthing to find valid contacts. The one recipient that didn’t respond had noted in their year-end report that deer had eaten all of their plants the very same day they were planted. How disheartening!  Of the five that did respond, I am pleased to report that four are going strong and maturing nicely, each with a unique story that I will summarize below. The fifth site, an elementary school in Missouri, was unfortunately “terminated,” mown flat by their district’s maintenance crew. So let’s get the bad news over with first.

Not all of the projects we help fund are long-term successes. If this sample of six is representative, one-third of our grant recipients may only grow for a year or two. The project manager of the Missouri site, a teacher at the school, had done her work – she coordinated students, teachers, maintenance staff, local businesses, and a conservation expert. She had the principal’s approval and the district’s blessing. The coreopsis and black-eyed Susans were thriving, the primrose and verbena were beginning to spread, and even indigo and blazing stars were scattered throughout the plot. But somebody complained. The district decided to remove all wildflower plots because they felt they were eyesores and they wanted to “landscape” the areas. They wanted a “clean, clear look.” How could this have been avoided? Perhaps the front-and-center location of the plot was not the best choice. Perhaps more teachers needed to be involved from the beginning. But most importantly, I want to make clear that the project was not a “failure.” The process teaches just as much, if not more, than the outcome. The students got to work in the earth, and some of their fruits are still being dispersed. Seeds were collected and have been given to a student-run greenhouse. Hopefully, the next generation of plants will grow and be valued for the critical resource they are.

Students trek through the woods at the
Lorado Taft Field Campus of
Northern Illinois University, near Oregon, Illinois.

One site munched by deer, another lost to typical suburban aesthetics. But two-thirds of this small sample is doing incredibly well. Jodi Hinrichs and Carolyn Tiller of Doudna Elementary in Richland, Wisconsin, report that approximately 30 of their teachers regularly use their nature area. They credit much of her site’s success to proper site preparation – they smothered weeds and grass with a thick layer of newspaper, and had the students plant directly through the paper mulch.

Since the site is adjacent to their playground, the children “can be found exploring in the nature area any time of day.” Students often excitedly report animal viewings, like deer and snakes. The Doudna team has increased the nature area, originally just a prairie, by planting trees and shrubs to create a woodland prairie and a bird-observation area. Ms. Hinrichs states that the “nature area is very much a part of the school,” and is “an educational area for the community.”

Similarly, Lynn Futch of Mill Creek Elementary, in Georgia, reports that they plan to improve their outdoor education area by installing a pond, if awarded a county foundation grant for which they have applied. She feels the installation of a sprinkler system (afforded by a $1,200 Human-I-Tees fundraiser led by parents) has been critical to the long-term success of their project. In third grade, students focus on their home state of Georgia and learn about native plants like columbine, milkweed, and monarda. Then, in fourth and fifth grade, they weed and care for the raised beds that the plants grow in. Ms. Futch points out that the botanical  garden at Georgia Southern University has been a great resource, providing additional species of native plants as well as curricular activities to help teachers use the site.

At Velma Hamilton Middle School, in Madison, Wisconsin, the centerpiece of the outdoor classroom is a huge 12 x 12-foot table that an entire class can gather around. And gather they do – practicing skits, warming up for band sectionals, reading, sketching, writing haiku poetry, picnicking, and meeting for knitting club. They also do some “real” science, including soil testing, ecosystem population studies, and geology. Teacher Sarah Waddell is very supportive of the outdoor classroom, but she laments the loss of half of the original team of teachers who worked on the project, either due to retirement or other career moves.

Ms. Waddell, along with Ms. Futch, strongly encourages others who are just starting to plan an outdoor classroom to get as many teachers and staff committed to the project from the beginning, to ensure proper maintenance and to get as many students learning outside as possible.

Outdoor education areas on school campuses are perhaps the best way to ensure regular contact between students and the out-of-doors. No bus is needed, no permission slips have to be signed – if the curriculum sparks an interest, and the weather is agreeable, teachers can immediately take a class outside for study.

But the Lorado Taft Field Campus of Northern Illinois University seems to me like the perfect place for an overnight field trip if you’re lucky enough to live in the northern half of Illinois. Next to the scenic Rock River and Lowden State Park, more than 6,000 students in the fourth through eighth grades will visit the Lorado Taft Campus this year – and they will all spend three days and two nights there, taking part in classes like orienteering, animal tracking, instincts for survival, and night hiking.

Cheryl Thompsen, the environmental education coordinator, describes how the currently all-grass North Field prairie will be burned for the first time this spring. They will begin     to diversify the prairie this year by adding wildflower seed collected from their small remnant prairie, including false indigo, rattlesnake master and shooting star. What a wonderful submersion in nature for the students who get to visit this former artist colony. Let’s hope some of the students, teachers and chaperoning parents have been inspired to create their own nature study areas.

To learn more about the Lorado Taft Field Campus go to www.niu.edu/taft.

Celia Larsen, is our contributing editor covering the Seeds for Education program. She is a member of the Ann Arbor (MI) Chapter.

This article appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of the Wild Ones Journal.