Nature Education Trails
by Bruce Hodgdon
Hanging on the walls of the entrance to the school library are a dozen photographs, each with the name and grade, ranging from third to seventh, of the photographer. The pictures are of nature: macro close-ups of leaves and flowering plants, of trees and birds and blue sky. Each of the pictures is beautifully framed, and their prominent location indicates the school places a good deal of importance on acknowledging the photographers and the subject of their work—nature.
Indian Trail School, a grade school in the Summit Hill School District in Frankfort, places a great deal of emphasis on science and, since 1990, has worked with the Forest Preserve District of Will County to advance science education. It was then that the two entities jointly created a trail in the forest preservers Hunters Woods, located nearby the school, for use by students in the Summit Hill District to further their understanding of the environment.
The trail serves as an outdoor classroom for the children, and with this "I hear and forget, I see and remember, I do and understand" approach to science, it is hoped that the wonders of nature will take hold in young minds and establish a lifelong interest in the subject.
The origin of this program can be traced to November 1989 when Steve Pieritz, principal of Indian Trail School, requested the development of a trail in Hunters Woods from the forest preserve district's Operations Committee. Pieritz wanted the Nature Education Trail as part of the school's innovative Project SEASONS (Student Education and Study of Natural Sciences). The request was approved by the committee, and the following spring, a work crew cleared and marked the trail and constructed foot bridges for the new half-mile trail.
In January 1991 the Operations Committee approved the concept plan of an Environmental Learning Center, which provided for, among other things, a Nature Education Trail Program. This program allows schools within Will County to use, free of charge, forest preserves as extensions of the classroom. The Summit Hill School District/Will County Forest Preserve District cooperative agreement became the model for this program.
An important element of the agreement was that the district would provide in-service training in science education to Summit Hill teachers. During the fall of 1992 and the winter and spring of 1993, forest preserve staff gave teachers an opportunity to explore the changing seasonal ecology of Hunters Woods. In these forest ecology courses—held during fall, winter and spring—teachers studied animal tracking, weather lore, pond investigations, and bird watching.
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With this training, teachers are able to take their students on wildflower walks to locate and sketch wildflowers such as jack-in-the-pulpit, trout lily, Jacob's ladder, toadshade, snaker-oot, and blue phlox.
Because the philosophy behind Project SEASONS is to incorporate science education throughout the curriculum, Summit Hill staff have received extensive environmental education regarding how best to utilize the trails in the classroom. Last summer, 22 district teachers took a graduate class entitled Forest Ecology for Educators offered by Governors State University. Cindy Schletz, the forest preserve's Environmental Learning Center coordinator, was contracted by the university to teach the course.
The class studied the identification, anatomy, and physiology of trees, and learned how to monitor and measure their growth. Cooperative groups of students came up with ways that the subject of trees could be used across the curriculum. In Language Arts, for example, students adopt a particular tree, then compose poetry, write expository papers about some aspect of it, and keep detailed logs about its growth.
From this workshop, the teachers are in the process of compiling a resource booklet that will offer the faculty insights as to how to utilize the forest to stimulate their students' curiosity about nature.
Community service is another way the students use the trail. By assisting the forest preserve district and Summit Hill School District in the maintenance of the trail, students become stewards and take responsibility for the land. Their work provides others who use the trail with a safer, cleaner, and more enjoyable environment.
Both elements come together in the students' involvement in the planting of trees that will eventually form a linear arboretum linking the five schools in the Summit Hill District. Pieritz said that 150 trees have been planted so far, and the children have assisted in the planting of some of these.
A second school, also in Frankfort, signed on to the cooperative agreement with the Forest Preserve District of Will County. The Hickory Creek School, adjacent to the district's Sauk Trail Preserve, not only was granted a Nature Education Trail Area but also a Science Project Area.
The Science Project Area totals 6.5 acres; 3.5 acres of which consist of a fielded area and 3 acres of a wooded section. The agreement designated the area for educational purposes including monitoring and scientific studies. With the permission of the forest preserve, students are able to plant native species in the fielded area.
While these Nature Education Trails were made for students from both schools, other schools in Will County are encouraged to use them for science field trips. It is hoped that as the popularity of the two pilot programs becomes better known, other school districts will see the value of using forests to increase the awareness of the environment and the inherent interest of science education.
The pictures displayed in the Indian Trail library reveal that the vision of young minds has already become focused on the wonders of nature, and that the overall objective of exciting student interest in the wonders of science is being reached.
Bruce Hodgdon is the Media Liaison for the Forest Preserve District of Will County.
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Sam S. Manivong, Illinois Periodicals Online Coordinator