Far away from the grassy savannas of southern Africa, when Richfield Public School (RPS) students go on safari they’re on the lookout for muskrats.
Crunching through the snow and searching for adorable wetland mammals is just part of a multi-year series of adventures included in the comprehensive science education at RPS. Thanks to the longstanding partnership between the district and Wood Lake Nature Center, children build a background in natural sciences while out in the wilderness.
“We provide hands-on, experiential learning to reinforce classroom studies,” says Scott Ramsay, one of Wood Lake’s naturalists.
Starting in pre-k, students learn about camouflage, the water cycle and invasive species while getting their hands dirty and hearing the songs of blackburnian warblers and red-winged blackbirds.
This education builds upon itself over the course of elementary school. For example, in the fall, second-graders learn about seed dispersal and how simple machines work while making tasty apple cider. When they return in the spring, they try technologies devised by Native American cultures, including making thread for clothing from the sinew of a deer’s Achilles tendon. In third grade, a lesson on plant and animal adaptations shows how the structures and functions within different organisms all work together like parts of a machine. Roots, leaves and stems form a living technology.
Our intrepid knowledge-seekers are in for another treat in March, when they use a simple hand-drill on one of Wood Lake’s many beautiful trees. As a steady drip of sap seeps from the trunk, these 9-year-olds learn about the uses and long history of what the Ojibwe people call ziinzibaakwad. Now, the sweet stuff is more commonly known as maple syrup.
Wood Lake Nature Center is without a doubt a special place. The ecosystem supports red-tailed hawks and rusty patched bumblebees, cottonwood saplings and rambunctious river otters, Virginia bluebell blossoms and, of course, families of friendly muskrats. But the most exciting species to be found are the troupes of young scientists, taking their first steps of discovery and finding their home in the natural world.