Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Healthy Wetlands" – A Master Naturalist Creates Journeys Through Southwood Nature Preserve

By Sage Passi

Maplewood Middle School 7th graders experience a wetland at Southwood Nature Preserve.

“No Child Left Inside” is beginning to take root in North St. Paul thanks to the efforts of Master Naturalist, Cathy Troendle who dedicates her time to fostering encounters with the natural world for young people in her community. 

Master Naturalist, Cathy Troendle, The Master Mind for the
journeys through Southwood Nature Preserve.

One of Troendle’s visions for a hands-on learning opportunity for young people at Southwood Nature Preserve in North St. Paul recently sprang to life on May 12 when the entire Maplewood Middle School seventh grade (230 students) jumped into action in a field day that she developed to help them immerse themselves in a nearby environment while learning about the ecological and water quality issues at their local wetland. Cathy, a seasoned volunteer educator, has been providing classroom and field lessons for third through fifth grade students at Cowern School in North St. Paul for the past five years.

The wonders of wetlands.

Troendle’s teaching repertoire includes creating and offering lessons in multiple classrooms for each of these grades in the fall, winter and spring as well as coordinating field trips to the park to investigate prairie and woodland habitats, birds, mammals and frogs. The hands-on experiences she orchestrates in the spring introduce students to plant identification and animal tracking and engage them in the recording of a variety of ecological perimeters including soil temperature, pH and light conditions at the preserve. Her approach builds in elements of play, inquiry, observation and immersion in the out-of-doors.

Experiencing wonder.

The Norwegians have a word for it….. “Friluftsliv” 

Sometimes you need to look elsewhere to find models for this teaching approach. There is a word for this kind of learning in Norwegian. It’s called friluftsliv (frí-loofts-live) which literally translates as “free air life.” The successful connection between child development and the outdoors can be seen clearly in Scandinavian educational systems. In Finland, for example , where they build in ample opportunities to be in the out-of-doors, their educational system consistently ranks as one of the world’s top three countries in academic performance while U.S. schools place well below Finland — 20th in the world, according to the United Nations. The correlation between child development and making connections with nature still remains a frontier in the academic world, but evidence is growing.

According to author, Richard Louv, co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization that supports the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world, the more high tech schools are becoming the more they need nature. Louv, author of eight books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age," contends that it is ultimately most effective for us “to live simultaneously in both the digital and physical worlds, using computers to maximize our powers to process intellectual data and natural environments to ignite our senses and accelerate our ability to learn and feel. “ 

You can read more about Louv’s thoughts and research in this area in his article, “The Hybrid Mind: The More High Tech Schools Become, The More Nature They Need, “ published after his keynote address in November 2013 in Boston at a Learning and the Brain Conference, Engaging 21st Century Minds: Using Brain Science, Technology, Nature and Collaboration for Deeper Learning.

Project WET Coordinator, Janine Kohn (right) invites a young visitor to check out a crayfish the seventh-graders collected.  Deb Armstrong (left) a retired teacher and Master Naturalist who lives in North St. Paul, frequently takes her grandchild for a stroll through the Preserve.

Louv reports that schools that do use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education report significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. Students in Finland, for example lead the world in math and science scores; in that country, it’s an article of faith that the best education includes time spent in the classroom — with lots of recess and learning time outdoors.

Taking a close-up look at pond life.
Since she began teaching at Cowern in 2009, Troendle nurtured a dream of developing something experiential outdoors for Maplewood Middle School students. 

" I wasn't seeing any young people in the parks or preserves, " says Cathy.  " I did an informal survey of students at the school that lived less than a mile from the school and found out that 75% didn't even know the preserve was there and those that did really liked going there."

Because Southwood Nature Preserve is within easy walking distance to that school, she approached their principal three years ago and gradually, after intensive planning and coordination, her plans for a learning event came together, thanks to her persistence, dedication, creative problem solving and resourcefulness, not to mention all her many volunteer hours! Now Cathy plans to repeat this field day in the spring of 2015.

Left: What is that crazy looking thing?  Capturing and identifying aquatic life.
Right: Closer than you think, Southwood Nature Preserve is easily accessible with parking right on
Holloway Ave. west of Century Ave. (https://goo.gl/maps/wU0xO)

Besides being an experienced educator, Troendle has good skills as a networker. Ten classroom teachers were engaged at the site during the May field day. She also recruited twenty one volunteers including other Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners, Watershed District and Maplewood Nature Center staff, Project Wet staff from the MN DNR, University students and Audubon volunteers who donated their time to help students journey through five field stations.

The volunteer team at the Maplewood Middle School Field Day.

This powerhouse of volunteers assisted students in getting acquainted with the variety of habitats at the site, learning about the ecological issues and evaluating the water quality in the wetland.

Lead Naturalist at Maplewood Nature Center, Ann Hutchinson, encourages a student to discover hidden
macroinvertebrate life in the pond.  Curiosity is spawned.

Learning stations were set up by volunteers to incorporate hands on activities that included buckthorn busting, simulating the challenges of bird migration, investigating monarch habitats, techniques of birding and the use of binoculars and wetland monitoring. Several service learning opportunities were built into the day including pulling buckthorn and removing invasive Canada Goldenrod.

Clockwise from upper left.  Tackling buckthorn at Southwood Nature Preserve.  Competing with classmates for who could get the longest goldenrod root out of the ground while working to preserve monarch butterfly habitat.  Experiencing the challenges of migration.  The "bird" who successfully migrated. 

I hope that the positive outdoor experiences at Southwood Nature Preserve provide evidence to educators about the value of offering these kinds of opportunities to help stimulate their students’ senses and curiosity in the natural world. As Louv concludes, “Few today would question the notion that every person, especially every young person, has a right to access the Internet, whether through a school district, a library, or a city’s public Wi-Fi program. We accept the idea that the divide between the digital haves and have-nots must be closed. But all children also have a right to develop a wider spectrum of their senses and mental abilities, to know the real world, and to be fully alive.”


Looking for another up-coming opportunity to explore Southwood Nature Preserve and spend time observing its wildlife? Check out this June event.

Friends of Frogs Hike at Southwood Nature Preserve June 20

Frogs are excellent indicators of wetland health. Join Biologist Carole Gernes for an entertaining and educational evening class at Southwood Nature Preserve in North St. Paul (https://goo.gl/maps/wU0xO) on Friday, June 20, from 8:30 to 9:45 p.m.

Southwood Nature Preserve is home to at least five species of frogs.
Photo courtesy of Carole Gernes.

Learn to identify frog and toad species by their calls. Receive a free Minnesota DNR frog poster, instructions for making a frog call, a phenology check list and a list of good areas to hear frogs.

Dress for the weather and bring a water bottle. Wear long pants long-sleeved shirts to prevent mosquito bites, and good shoes for hiking. Recommended for ages 6 and up, with an adult. Please RSVP to
laurie.koehnle[at]northstpaul.org or call 651.747.2504.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

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