It was a chilly 17 degrees, but that didn't deter a flock of fifth-graders who were gung-ho to find bald eagles.
The students were participating in Outdoor Education Partnership, a cooperative venture of Blair Community Schools and DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. The program, in its seventh year, takes kids from grades 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 11 to the refuge for a nature class from two to seven times each school year.
Both students and the refuge benefit. The kids get to experience nature firsthand, learn observation skills and make scientific conclusions. The refuge broadens its appeal and maybe creates future regular visitors, volunteers and benefactors.
The program was patterned after a similar but smaller one in Fergus Falls, Minn. Representatives from the Blair schools and the refuge visited the Minnesota sessions, brought ideas home, expanded the program to more grades and came up with lesson plans, said Ashley Danielson, a park ranger and DeSoto's specialist in visitor services and education.
If a student stays in Blair schools from elementary through high school, Danielson said, he or she will have visited the refuge for class nearly 30 times.
Fifth-grade teacher Todd Wick said he and Danielson meet from time to time to develop and update the classes. Fifth-graders' experiences include such themes as “Sense of Wonder,” “Beavers,” “Migratory Birds and Wetlands,” “Bald Eagles” and “Scientific Observation.”
On the recent bald eagle morning, about 56 fifth-graders first gathered at the Visitor Center, where Danielson led them through some questions about the birds.
Many of the kids had done their homework. They answered eagerly and correctly. They knew parts of the eagle body and the adaptations that made eagles successful predators. The students were keeping scientific journals, where they made notes and recorded observations.
“We don't answer questions,” Danielson said. “We make them come up with the answers.”
Armed with binoculars, the students went to a lookout to watch for eagles through large glass windows.
They saw plenty. Some got excited when they saw an eagle catch a fish and settle on a tree branch to eat it. Some watched the birds as they rode thermals, rising air currents that allow birds to glide or maintain flight without flapping their wings.
“The kids are so engaged,” Wick said. “They want to share what they find.”
In words and pictures, the kids busily documented their observations.
Natalie Reynolds, 11, said she really liked watching the eagles. And she likes coming to DeSoto because she's learning to become a naturalist.
“Whenever I go out, I will be able to recognize things,” she said.
The students eventually had to brave the cold, although they started in their slow-moving school buses, scanning the sky and trees for eagles.
It didn't take long to see some. Once outside, each student had a chance at a telescopic viewer to watch eagles perched in a tree. Some of the birds flew away when the bus stopped, but others held their ground and looked as if they were daring anyone to make them move.
Eleven-year-old Gabby Leonard watched as a streamer dropped from one young eagle. It looked like a shiny ribbon, but Gabby recognized it for what it was: “eagle poop,” she said.
“And what do we call that?” asked Danielson, with mock seriousness.
“Scat,” said Gabby. She tried to draw what she'd seen in her journal, though her gloves and a brisk wind made it difficult.
Gabby laughed. Her drawing looked more like a penguin, she said.
Across the road, another eagle sat in haughty disdain. Because it was only a few yards from the kids, they could see it well, even without binoculars.
They also got to check out an eagle's nest.
“It's huge!” one of the kids remarked.
Colin Quick, 10, observed the nest through one of the telescopes and his binoculars. He could see the head of the eagle that was hunkered down in the nest, but he wished he could take a closer look.
“I'd like to go in there and walk around,” he said wistfully.
Wick, his teacher, asked him: “Why can't you do that?”
“I'd be interrupting nature,” Colin replied.
Wick smiled. That was the correct answer.
Wick said his students bring back important lessons each time they visit DeSoto. For instance, the fifth-graders planted and care for a 2-acre native grass area on the school grounds. Their next project is to create a wetlands.
“The kids do all the work,” he said.
Occasionally, a child balks at going to DeSoto, saying he doesn't like the outdoors.
Within a couple visits, they almost always change their minds, Wick said.
Each grade visiting the wildlife refuge has its own lessons and goals. This year, middle school students have incorporated iPads into their studies. And high schoolers can take an independent study course that allows them to spend part of the school day working in various departments at the refuge.
“Our goal in fifth grade is to have our students see and appreciate the wonders of nature,” Wick said. “We want our students to go out into nature and see beauty, live in the moment, make observations, ask questions, draw conclusions.”
The program is having other beneficial effects on students. Wick said after visits, the kids seems more focused in class.
And a school official said he thinks it has improved overall academic success.
Last year, the Blair district's scores were higher than the state average in the three grades tested for state science standards.
“District scores are higher than the state average for a variety of reasons,” said Mark Gutschow, assistant principal of Otte Blair Middle School and the school partnership coordinator. “However, in my opinion, the partnership with DeSoto has directly contributed to higher student achievement.”
The intrepid fifth-graders learned plenty on that cold morning, but they seemed united in the reason they liked going to DeSoto: “It's fun!”
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