A lesson in nature

Published 9:19 am Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bill Thompson, a project manager with the state Pollution Control Agency, helps students analyze water samples. -- Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

About 150 seventh-graders pretended they were Native Americans Wednesday morning. They traveled through the seasons, making decisions about whether to hunt for food or bring more water to the village in a time of drought.

Not far from the history station at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center, students learned about various water bugs, from mayflies and caddis flies to other crawly insects native to a rivershed. At the edge of Dobbins Creek, students measured the water, checking for things like temperature, pH level, sediment build-up and bacteria samples.

This wasn’t a typical field trip. This was the annual water quality field trip, a hands-on experience and a rite of nature for middle school students that’s gone on for more than 20 years.

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“We incorporated a lot of subject areas,” said Larry Dolphin, Director of the Nature Center.

The seventh-grade class comes to the Nature Center every year to experience first-hand how important things like water quality and the environment are. Aside from going through a choose-your-adventure style history lesson, students used math by working on problems involving large invertebrates as well as language arts by writing about their experiences walking on Nature Center trails.

“It is very exciting to bring (students) into the classroom of nature, so they can actually experience what they read in books,” said Eric Vaughn, social studies teacher.

The students seemed to enjoy the field trip, having prepared for weeks in their science classes by learning about pH levels and water bugs.

“It was interesting,” said Sarah Eich. “You noticed things more.”

For students completing the history activity, the decisions they made could affect whether they lived or died. Playing as Ojibwe, Dakota, Norwegian settlers or French traders, groups of students made choices about little things like fording a river, what kind of crops to grow, and preparations for the winter.

“It kind of gives you an idea of what they had to go through, what decisions they made,” said Kayla Jacobsen.

Wednesday’s group was only half of the students who get to participate, as another group goes next week.

“It’s very fun,” said Melanie Solis. “We’re outside, and we’re learning about how we should treat nature.”