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Iowa Teachers and Neal SmithNational Wildlife Refuge: Teaching in the Outdoor Classroom
Midwest Region, June 11, 2014
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Close up with Neal Smith NWR bison.
Close up with Neal Smith NWR bison. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Teaching in the Outdoor Classroom particpants listening to Megan Wandag on the first morning of the workshop.
Teaching in the Outdoor Classroom particpants listening to Megan Wandag on the first morning of the workshop. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Iowa teachers learning about Neal Smith NWR in a study of place with binoculars.
Iowa teachers learning about Neal Smith NWR in a study of place with binoculars. - Photo Credit: USFWS
The final afternoon of the workshop: Teachers learning about the outdoor classroom from one another.
The final afternoon of the workshop: Teachers learning about the outdoor classroom from one another. - Photo Credit: UFWS

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, more than 5,500 acres of restored prairie, was a perfect setting for twenty five Iowa teachers to make discoveries about teaching in an outdoor classroom. With bison grazing peacefully to the north, June 11th and 12th found Iowa teachers of all subject areas and grade levels exploring the prairie at Neal Smith. The Teaching in the Outdoor Classroom Workshop was designed to help teachers understand how to use effective environmental education instructional strategies. These strategies may be summarized in five words: awareness, knowledge, attitude, skills and participation. To develop these strategies in Iowa students, workshop members were introduced to the COMPASS to nature. Consisting of four components the COMPASS provides teachers with a way back into nature with their students. Using field journals, understanding phenology, the study of place and a study of naturalists furnishes both teacher and student with concrete, proven ways to reconnect with nature. One of the best aspects of the COMPASS is that this reconnection can effectively occur during the school day.

Megan Wandag, Visitors Services Specialist at Neal Smith, Iowa and David Ellis, Instructional Systems Specialist at Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, Fergus Falls, Minnesota provided a team approach to leading the workshop. These instructors guided teachers from 13 Iowa school districts and even one from Minnesota. Following a brief review of environmental education and its five key principles teachers were engaged in hands on activities which demonstrated use of the four points of the COMPASS. They were reminded of the words of David Sobel from his book Beyond Ecophobia, “What’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it before being asked to heal its wounds.” They discovered that the COMPASS to nature is a four section package designed to follow the counsel of Sobel.

Using the reality of the outdoor classroom in a national wildlife refuge, each Iowa teacher came in contact with the beauty and mystery of restored prairie. Every outside element of the workshop was designed to provide the teachers with real examples of how to use the four COMPASS parts with their own students. Field journals were used to record weather conditions and prairie discoveries at Neal Smith. The work and writing of naturalists Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, John Muir, Dr. Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), and Lewis and Clark were examined. The best phenology application came when workshop members were reminded that lying on the prairie in June was a certain invitation for chigger bites. The teachers were reminded that while a national wildlife refuge is the absolute best “place” to reconnect with nature, even a school parking lot is a place where outside can be studied.

The Neal Smith Teaching in the Outdoor Classroom Workshop effectively focused on Conserving the Future recommendation 20 by working with partners outside of the Service to include important program elements, and offer creative modes of delivery. Part of the workshop directed the twenty five teachers to prepare their own lesson plans which would use the outdoor classroom nearest their school. These plans were presented to the workshop group. Every participant seeking course credit or Iowa teacher license renewal wrote a paper mapping out how they will use the outdoors as a classroom with their students in the coming school year.
This fall many students in Iowa and Minnesota will be provided with chances to bond with the natural world as their teachers apply the use of the COMPASS to nature in their classrooms. Feedback from those in the workshop was positive, "Both (presenters) were delightful experts full of great ideas, examples, and inspiration. This was one of the best learning experiences I've had in a long time. Thank you! Their passion was contagious!"


Contact Info: David Ellis, 1-218-998-4484, david_ellis@fws.gov
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