Project Bluestem Curriculum

Students in the oak savanna

 “It is not half so important to know as to feel…It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts that he is not ready to assimilate.” –Rachel Carson, former USFWS biologist

The Project Bluestem Curriculum at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge uses the restored and reconstructed tallgrass prairie ecosystem as an integrating and motivating context to engage school children in real world, field-based learning experiences. Project Bluestem, the primary curriculum used at Neal Smith NWR, has been updated and adapted to reflect the most current philosophies and methodologies of environmental education. Lessons currently cover grades K-5. Contact the refuge at 515-994-3400 or by email to ask specific questions about lesson plans.

Revised Project Bluestem

The goals of the revised lessons are studying and becoming a naturalist; using nature journals; tracking phenology; learning from model naturalists; and searching for wonder. In the revised lessons, the interest and questions of learners ultimately drive lesson objectives. Students are put in charge of constructing their own learning and field leaders serve as facilitators (not lecturers) in helping learners make independent, personal, and consequently meaningful discoveries about the environment.

Whether visiting the refuge or in their schools, teachers are welcome to use the linked lesson plans. Lessons are divided by grade and season:

Fall Lessons


What is a Prairie?

Prairie Explorers

First Grade

Curious about Clouds

Prairie Soil Explorers

Second Grade

First Americans on the Prairie

Meet a Prairie Plant

Third Grade

Plant Life Cycles

Sticky Seed Situation

Fourth Grade

Habitat Comparisons

The Secrets of Watching Wildlife

Fifth Grade

Habitat and Space

Prairie Food Cupboard


Spring Lessons


Color Hunt

What do Birds do on the Prairie?

Where do Prairie Animals Live?

First Grade

Investigating the Invisible

Shaping Up

Second Grade

Prairie Hike and Investigation

Let’s Sketch on the Prairie

Third Grade

Prairie Insects

Prairie Plants Change

Fourth Grade

Bison Investigation

Prairie Celebrations

Fifth Grade

A Sense of Wonder

Bio Blitz in the Prairie and Oak Savanna

Discovering Diversity 

Original Project Bluestem Curriculum

Written in 1995, the Project Bluestem Curriculum is Neal Smith NWR’s founding environmental education curriculum. Project Bluestem has a wide variety of topics for nearly every grade level and helps students become intimately acquainted with tallgrass prairies, oak savannas and Neal Smith NWR. The pertinence of Project Bluestem persists today and it can still be used as a valuable environmental education resource. Yet, in the written introduction of Project Bluestem, curriculum developers declared that Project Bluestem was an unfinished and dynamic document that should be “constantly changing, improving and growing”. Neal Smith NWR recognizes the importance of these commands and has worked to uphold them by reviewing and revising the curriculum, currently reflected in the lessons above.

“Imagine that you and your students are Sherlock Homes, sleuthing out things to draw- varied leaf shapes, animal evidence, shadows, cloud patterns, a bird flitting by.” – Clare Walker Leslie, on teaching nature journaling