Bringing nature into the classroom

By Shaheen Kanthawala, Great Lakes Echo

Wheeling big boxes of skulls, feathers and posters into a classroom and exciting children about the nature of the Great Lakes region is the best part of the job.

Jeff Dykehouse,  curator of natural history at Mackinac State Historic Parks, visits an average of 50 schools within 75-miles of Mackinaw City in Michigan during the course of a winter.

Students involved in this program are mostly third and fourth graders. “I try to convince these kids about how lucky we are to be living in the Great Lakes area with all this clean, fresh water we take for granted,” said Dykehouse, “I tell stories and give examples about when people who are not from Michigan come here and are amazed at the varieties of plants and animals we have.”

Showing artifacts to the students while jumping around like a kid himself excites the children about the program and encourages them to care about natural history, Dykehouse said. The program varies according to the curriculum of students he visits. It excites the students that someone else besides their teachers think that what they learn is important.

“The missions of the program include getting across the message of the Mackinac State Parks – that we are here to teach people and protect the cultural and natural history of the parks – across to people and getting the value of natural resources across to the kids so that they can continue to enjoy it and protect it,” he said

The Mackinac State Parks administers attractions on Mackinac Island and Mackinaw City, including Fort Mackinac, Mackinac Island State Park, Historic Downtown Mackinac, the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, Michilimackinac State Park, Colonial Michilimackinac, Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse .

Dykehouse developed his program about 17 years ago. His biology background helped. “Other similar programs existed which were led by historians and archeologists and talked about the history of our sites,” Dykehouse said.  “Those guys were having all the fun. So being the only biologist on staff, I decided to design something similar with natural history.”

This education outreach program – called Water, Woods and Wildlife – reaches about 8,000Michigan students a year. That means that  over the course of about 20 years it has reached more than 180,000 children, said Steve Brission, chief curator at Mackinac State Historic Parks, “We hope to continue it indefinitely.”

The program goes hand-in-hand with the Michigan Grade Level Content Expectations, said Sue Gimble-Crandell, who teaches fourth grade at nearby Cheboygan. Her students study about the habitats of local ponds, the Great Lakes, forests, food chains.. Dykehouse helps bring those lessons alive.

“He talks about the watershed, passes around models of the animals, which really brings it home for the students,” Gimble-Crandell said.

“I hope to bring awareness to these kids so that they would want to preserve and protect these natural resources and wildlife in the future,” said Dykehouse, “I want them to know about nature and not fear it. What would be the point of preserving a forest or a bird or a watershed, if it’s something I wouldn’t care or know about?”

© 2010, Great Lakes Echo, Michigan State University Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.

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