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A fifth-grade student in Blair, Nebraska, records observations in a nature journal during a scientific inquiry lesson at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa.
A fifth-grade student in Blair, Nebraska, records observations in a nature journal during a scientific inquiry lesson at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa.
Credit: Joe Burns, USFWS

Back to School Means Back to Nature for Many Students

For many students around the country, outdoor classrooms are back in session, thanks to educational partnerships between national wildlife refuges and community school districts. Students in these programs don’t just plod through textbooks to meet curriculum goals. They head to a refuge to learn science, analysis and critical thinking through guided firsthand experience in nature and conservation.

In Nebraska, students in Blair Community Schools take part in an ambitious environmental education program with nearby DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, just over the Iowa border.

When DeSoto Refuge began its program in 2006, refuge staff aimed it primarily at students in grades five and seven. This year’s program, now in its fifth year, will reach about 900 students, including all those in grades three, five, six, seven and eight, as well as a high school environmental science class, a middle school exploratory technology class and a middle school art class. Refuge lessons are tailored to class objectives. For example, fifth graders explore bald eagle habitat as part of their study of predator-prey relationships. Environmental science students study a refuge prairie burn after learning about fire ecology in the classroom.

Students and teachers praise the program. “DeSoto Refuge changed the way I see nature,” says sixth-grader Eddie O’Malley. “I used to run right through nature. Now I slow down and observe it.” Fifth-grade teacher Todd Wick says the program “has brought life to life sciences. My students now think and act like naturalists. They go into nature with their senses in high gear. They not only see things in greater detail, but they appreciate it and want to understand it.  They are better at making inferences, scientific observations, and problem solving.”

In some areas of the country, grants, scholarships and volunteer efforts are needed to sustain refuge school projects, particularly where travel distances are greater. But the DeSoto Refuge project has become so integral to the curriculum that the school district covers all transportation costs, even in a time of sharp cost cuts.

 “It’s been a great partnership,” says DeSoto Refuge Visitor Services Specialist Ashley Berkler, the refuge’s project coordinator. “The way students really hone in on the natural world is wonderful to see.”

Some other refuges that team with public schools to provide curriculum-based teaching through nature exploration include:
Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, MA http://www.fws.gov/northeast/greatmeadows/
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, FL http://www.fws.gov/saintmarks/
Bosque del Apache, NM http://southwest.fws.gov/refuges/newmex/bosque
Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, WA http://www.fws.gov/turnbull/
Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, Fergus Falls Wetland Management District, MN http://www.fws.gov/midwest/FergusFallsWetland/enved.html
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, PA http://heinz.fws.gov

For some resources on outdoor classroom program design and funding, see:
http://www.fws.gov/saintmarks/education.html
http://library.fws.gov/DEO/resource.list.pdf
http://www.handsontheland.org/

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