Warmer weather provides outdoor classrooms across Iowa

Warmer weather provides outdoor classrooms across Iowa

May 27, 2015

As the 25 kids stepped off the road into a restored prairie, a turkey exploded from the switchgrass, 50 feet away. Not a bad first minute, as Southeast Junior High’s 7th graders began their outdoor education field trip.

The assignment here, though–on the south arm of Lake Macbride State Park–was to inventory what lay at their feet. Spreading out, each pair dropped a hula hoop on the grass. “Start looking at what is inside it. Anything in the heavy grass; different grasses, shrubbery”, instructed Jay Gorsch, from University of Iowa recreational services. “Then, dig into the dirt. Look for the creatures not easily observed; the little creatures.”

There wasn’t much to see up top. Last year’s long stemmed grasses had died and now shielded the world below. Eventually, the kids pushed aside the top layer. “Hey, there’s spiders in here!”, was the first cry. “I see an ant”, called out another.

Zoe Tyne marked several red and black ants on her data sheet. “Look, a little mushroom”, noted Sierra Suiter, her partner. “It’s not a plant, though. It’s a fungi. I’ll make a separate box to list it”, reasoned Zoe. As they became accustomed to the minute world at their feet, they called out other findings; A white spider the size of a pinhead, worm holes, tiny green sprouts, moss. Their big find in the 20 minute investigation? “A bug…on a slug”, Zoe proclaimed.

Seriously. She showed it out to me.

The girls probably didn’t realize this simple transect study; measuring out a strip of ground, then making an ecological ‘inventory’, could figure into their academic future, if either goes into science. And that’s what sets this field trip apart from many other end of the school year outdoor days.

“It is geared toward science. We are starting our Ecology unit; we will investigate wild spaces; how diversity is better for an ecosystem”, explained Southeast science teacher Lynda Johnson. The entire 7th grade—over 300 strong–was in the park, or nearby at the University owned Macbride field campus.

The school partners with the UI’s Recreational Services and it’s College of Education; which provides grad students—future science teachers—some hands on experience with curious kids in the outdoors.

Every student in the three groups—the one I followed had about 140—went through the same five study areas. They tested lake water for pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrogen and other properties. They determined how much clay, sand or silt made up the soil core sample they extracted. They described their surroundings and the critters found, on prairie and woodlands surveys—even the bleached animal skull at the base of a tree.

An observation session let them be creative about what they entered in their data sheets. “Some of them did awesome today…some others? You can see that a lot of young people don’t get outside that much”, observed Johnson. Last year, one class went on the field trip—to Hickory Hill Park. The success there fueled plans for the this year; with tne entire 7th grade observing the outdoors firsthand.

Along the way, they had a lot of other brushes with Nature. They laughed as a seagull flew in place, because of the 25 mile an hour headwind. Nearby, two pairs of Canada geese faced off in a watery, territorial battle. Around noon, after 100 pairs of shoes barely missed it, I rescued a six inch morel along the edge of a path. Maybe next year, they can work in Mushroom Hunting 101.

“I like to get teachers using the outdoors for teaching”, admitted Gorsh, from the recreation services. “Particularly the grad students here today; planting the seed for future teachers.”

And it took an entire grade away from the books and screens and classrooms to learn about the outdoors—in the outdoors.