Teaching in the world's biggest classroom

Kids leave the books at home, learn to read nature's signs

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2007

Just after one of this winter's last big snowstorms, a gaggle of Glacier Valley Elementary School Montessori students huddled among spruce and hemlock trees with veteran naturalist Steve Merli, peering at tracks in the snow.

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What kind of tracks were they?

Rather than telling the students the answer, Merli asked them to look for clues. So the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders counted four toes on the front paw and five on the rear.

That narrowed it down to a rodent.

The kids started naming the Southeast Alaska rodents: porcupine, beaver, marmot, red squirrel, red backed vole, deer mouse. ... And about that time someone discovered a bunch of chewed-up spruce cones nearby.

Then they got it: a red squirrel.

At the same time a few hundred yards away, Merli's colleague Kevin O'Malley was leading the other half of the group on the trail of a porcupine and deer whose tracks wound up the flanks of Thunder Mountain.

For 17 years, naturalists like Merli and O'Malley have been teaching in the world's biggest classroom, the outdoors. They give grade-schoolers hands-on lessons about the natural history of Southeast Alaska under the sponsorship of the nonprofit organization Discovery Southeast.

"In this age of information, experience is dwindling," said Merli, a 51-year-old with degrees in biology and earth sciences.

"It is important that we get them outside to slow down and to understand the relationships, theirs included, that exist within nature," said Merli, who works as a massage therapist when he's not working with schoolchildren.

Merli and his fellow naturalists also collaborate with teachers on curricula to complement the instructors' science requirements.

Subjects include trees and shrubs, birds, mammals, mammal tracking, mammal adaptations, aquatic insects, landforms, forest succession, glaciology, energy cycles, and more.

It doesn't take a naturalist to figure out that most students would rather be outdoors than in a classroom. In Southeast, where the outdoors is never far away, that makes things fairly cheap and easy.

While some classes need transportation to their field trips, many can walk from school. Harborview Elementary School students, weather and snow conditions permitting, generally explore the Flume and Cope Park area or head toward Silverbow Basin.

Discovery Southeast fundraiser

What: Wading into Spring, the 17th annual Discovery Southeast auction dinner fundraiser.

When: Friday, April 6, 5:30-9:30 p.m.

Where: Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall.

What else: salmon and chicken barbecue, kids' activities, silent auction, entertainment and live auction with auctioneer Ron Clarke.

Cost: adults $20, youth $5, families $45; tickets available from Discovery board members or at Discovery Southeast office, 463-1500

For more information see www.discoverysoutheast.org.

"I have learned about fungus, and I have touched really gross things, but it was fun and cool," Gastineau Elementary School fifth-grader Tori Martin wrote when asked about the experience.

Said classmate Vaughn Ecklund: "I learned how to track animals, that snow has layers, what scat is, and types of bugs. I learned that mosquitoes come from larva."

Perhaps the most important lesson, however, is how to be outside in the first place.

Ever heard the statement, "Cotton kills?"

At Harborview, naturalist Diane Antaya guided the students through an experiment. They submerged material from jeans, a cotton T-shirt, fleece, and wool into icy water.

The students then pressed the various fabrics to their faces to determine the best kind of clothes to wear on the next day's hike.

Losers: jeans and T-shirts.

Discovery Southeast got its start in the late 1980s. Several tourist guides working with the commercial tour company Alaska Discovery decided they wanted a program for Southeast locals.

The group included Richard Carstensen. Along with colleagues and teachers at Harborview, he began spending time with students studying nature.

Discovery Southeast was organized as a nonprofit in 1989, and the commercial tour company is now one of many supporters. Other income sources are individuals, parent-teacher organizations, businesses, government agencies, other nonprofits and fundraisers.

The education programs get help from the Alaska Natural History Institute, the U.S. Forest Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the University of Alaska.

The organization also works in Gustavus and Haines, serving more than 4,000 participants each year.

Other services include training workshops for elementary and secondary teachers, with accreditation through the University of Alaska-Southeast.

The organization sponsors summer camps for kids, does research and publishes local field guides and articles by regional experts.

Each Juneau elementary school currently hosts two Discovery naturalists. Senior "leads" include Merli, who worked on the recent field trip with "apprentice" O'Malley.

Apprentices eventually move into lead positions to train newcomers and keep the program going.

They spend four hours each fall, winter and spring for a total of 12 hours a year, with all third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade classes. The naturalists spend 75 percent of their time with students outside and the remainder on prep and wrapup activities in the classroom.

At the end of the latest field trip, Merli and the kids investigated more squirrel and some porcupine sign.

"The students explored the boundaries of their relationship with winter," he said. "We learned how to deal with deep snow, and some of the students realized they were unprepared."

Since the field trip was conducted toward the end of Juneau's snowiest winter, that seems only natural.

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