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On a recent Thursday, two Discovery Southeast naturalists led students from a fourth-grade class on a two-hour outdoor winter field trip to study adaptation as part of the Nature Studies program.
Led by Steve Merli and Darren Snyder, half of Greg Beck's Mendenhall River Community School class bundled up in sleeping bags under a tarp, writing and imagining they were hibernating. The other group hiked off through a labyrinth of trees, over snow-covered logs, off the trail and into the forest to learn how the animals of Southeast adapt to winter.
"It's really fun because you get to experience tracks and be in the wilderness," said fourth-grader Paul Wilsner, who said enjoys learning about the winter behavior of the region's animals, especially how bears hibernate.
"I think it's fun because I get to look at tracks and stuff and learn some stuff I didn't know about animals," said Elise Christey, another fourth-grader in Beck's class. "If you're going to go camping you can look at stuff like that."
Discovery Southeast, a nonprofit nature-education organization, provides every third-, fourth- and fifth-grader in the public school system the opportunity to participate in naturalist-led excursions that aim to provide students with a greater appreciation and understanding of the natural world around them.
Snyder brought his group through the woods, to the banks of the Mendenhall River, looking at evidence of what was there before they came. The group of young explorers huddled around a set of raven tracks in the snow as they discussed the winter behavior of local birds and mammals.
"I think it's really important for kids to experience while they are learning," said Snyder, in his second year working for Discovery Southeast. "To get out of the classroom, to get out of the books, and to really engage and be part of their learning experience."
Program Executive Director Larry West said the Nature Studies program provides students with a new way to learn.
"What has become our slogan, I think pretty much says it all," said West. " 'Hands-on nature education for Southeast Alaskans.' That's who we are, that's what we do."
Kids learn best about nature when they head outside, said Beck.
"We have kind of a neat opportunity here just because with the environment here we can take kids out and basically teach them hands-on science," he said.
West stressed that the organization is not about environmental advocacy and activism, but rather about responsibility and respect for the important role that nature plays in everyone's lives.
"One of the things we are hopeful of doing is giving people a sense of responsibility for their environment," he said. "We're just hoping that through us people will learn what this environment is all about and what it takes to make sure that this environment continues to provide for their needs as an individual and for the needs of the people who live here."
Many Juneau children get outdoors on family hikes, hunting and fishing trips and other outings. But others don't.
"If their parents don't get outside, than these kids aren't going to get outside," said West. "If the kids have this experience, if they finally get outside, get away from their TVs, get away from the computer ... they'll find things there that will give them an appreciation that later on they'll benefit from because they enjoy getting out there. It will enrich their lives."
"This is such an opportunity, this is a world-class opportunity," said Snyder. "I think it really broadens them. It's amazing how many kids don't get out if their parents aren't into it."
Beck said he is able to see a difference in students after each Discovery Southeast field trip.
"I want the kids to take away a better knowledge of the general area around here and of the animals," he said. "The other thing I want them to really get into is wondering more and ... questioning so that they're wanting to do science more in the future."
Discovery Southeast has programs that provide nature education to students in other Southeast communities, including Haines, Wrangell, Gustavus, Angoon and Hoonah. They also have adult education programs and summer programs.
West said the organization has been busy working on providing more nature education opportunities for the community and the region. Staff are working on a guide training program for adults and a bear education program for elementary students. Both will begin in the near future.
"Basically the city looks to us to provide education to youngsters on bears, garbage and safety," he said. "That's a huge issue right now. ... By addressing the issues with the kids, the message will spread and the kids will take it home and will encourage their parents to be responsible with their garbage and with their kids' safety."
Passing the information on is important, West said, and he hopes the students take home the knowledge gained from the Nature Studies program.
"We hope above all that they develop an understanding and appreciation for their natural home," said West.
Eric Morrison can be reached at email@example.com.