In the first week of the New Year, more than 30 Madison-area school children enjoyed morning lessons in an outdoor classroom. On this unseasonably warm January day in Wisconsin, the boys and girls of Badger Rock Middle School received a unique learning experience at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona. Bundled up in their winter clothing, the kids explored the grounds of the campus, hiking its nature trails with snowshoes over frozen wetlands and oak savanna prairie. Guided by their teachers and naturalists at the Center, each student was encouraged to apply their knowledge of science to the surrounding ecosystem.

In the hopes of drawing a connection between their studies and this thriving preserve so close to their homes, this experience was meant to foster a deep understanding of the role that nature plays in their lives. Part of a new program sponsored by private donors this field day was a continuation of an innovative plan to help students learn life science and ecology in a natural setting. Working in direct partnership with the Center For Resilient Cities and the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, the teachers at Badger Rock Middle School aim to teach their students valuable lessons in the creation of a community that is sustainable, diverse and resilient.

“We want to help young people to not only learn about sustainability and environmental stewardship but also to help them build meaningful relationships with adults as part of integrated community,” said Sonya Sankaran, program specialist at the Center For Resilient Cities based in Milwaukee. “This kind of continuing interaction with the naturalists at Aldo is much better than a one-time field trip. We want this to be an extension of their classroom.”

Unlike traditional models in which students make a single visit to a remote field location for an educational experience, this program called the Science of Resilient Communities, which began in the fall of 2015, will bring the kids back several times throughout the school year. And with naturalists from the Center offering programs at Badger Rock as well this collaboration aims to establish the foundation of an academic community that students can rely on throughout their educational careers.

“I really believe that kids learn best through experiences,” said Nature Center Director Virginia Wiggen. “This program is important because it helps to fulfill our mission of educating people on critical issues like climate change as well as our legacy of protecting nature. Also, studies have shown that these kind of experiences help to improve attention spans, reduce stress and behavioral issues and increases test scores.”
The students at Badger Rock Middle School range in age from 12 to 15. Many who reside on Madison’s south side come from low-income families. And as they live in very urban environments, few have enjoyed practical experiences in nature that might benefit their education. Instructors like science teacher Cari Hauge hope that regular visits to a facility like the Aldo Leopold Nature Center will help to instill a sense of wonder and curiosity in her students that might put them on a path toward life-long learning and a love of nature.

“This really means a lot to our students who don’t have many opportunities to spend time outside,” Hauge said. “I grew up playing and learning in nature, but that was just part of who I am. A lot of our students, almost 60 percent of them on free or reduced lunch, haven’t had the chance to have this kind of experiential education. Bringing them here to learn science in a hands-on environment can really make a lasting impression.”

Away from the traditional classroom, the students can make real-world observations of things in life they might only read about in books. With their classmates they had the opportunity to walk through the grounds of the Center and engage the natural world around them on their own terms. Research suggests that an education that includes climbing trees and throwing snowballs offers children the chance to use more of their imagination and different kinds of social skills. Programs like this help young people to learn in ways that are meaningful to their own life experience. “We really love having the kids here and to see how much they get out of it,” said naturalist Kara Naramore. “As much as they explore the woods and trails they kind of explore themselves as well.”
Image-1 (1) copy
As part of their lessons for the day, each student was asked to make a brief presentation on something they had learned. The science curriculum at Badge Rock this semester includes a study of environmental parasites and the diseases they might transmit to human beings. It also provided a lesson in public speaking — the students were also encouraged to make eye contact with their audience of peers, exercise good posture and to talk clearly. Though many were shy and awkward in addressing their classmates, most managed to muster up the courage to share the knowledge gleaned from their studies. Some who had expressed an unwillingness to participate at first gradually become more animated and actively engaged in the discussions. And despite the anxious fidgeting and chattering so common of adolescent children, Naramore said the students she works with are showing clear signs of progress.

“I know a lot of them have difficulty focusing and paying attention,” Naramore said smiling, “but I can see a lot of improvement since the fall.”