For fourteen years I have been taking students to the Wildlife Science Center in Stacy, MN for a unique teaching and learning experience that few students and teachers can claim to experience. Over that time Northwest Passage and the Wildlife Science Center have gone through many changes, including a lot more gray hairs on some of the staff. When I was hired in 2004 as a Life Science teacher I took over the reigns of what was then titled the “Wolf Studies” class from former director Jamie Steckart. Jamie forged the original connections and laid the groundwork for all of the classes and projects to come. My first year of teaching the Wolf Studies class the school was still named Coon Rapids Learning Center, and we had three sessions with three different groups of students each day. During that year I took two groups of students to the WSC for a morning and an afternoon session almost every day during the six week term. Even as someone with a wide variety of experiences in biology, environmental science and animal handling I was continually amazed that year at the learning opportunities our students and I were given by the WSC staff.
The following year we moved to a full day school program and I taught one or two sessions a year. During those sessions students participate in a variety of research projects both as student school groups and in partnership with other agencies. Over the course of twelve years more than 200 students have participated in this immersive experiential learning model. During that time I also moved from Biology teacher and advisor to school Director in 2014. One of the conditions for taking the position was that I still be able to lead the Wolf Studies class. At times it has been hard to balance all of the responsibilities of being the administrator and teaching the class, but it is always one of the highlights of my year. There have been many memorable experience over the years, but three stand out.
The first one is the annual reproduction study with the Wildlife Science Center and the St. Louis Zoo. NWPHS students are given the opportunity to handle sedated wolves including taking weights and measurements, monitoring internal temperatures, and gathering semen for an ongoing study to help with species recovery programs. Students deepen their understanding of the concepts of reproduction, the process of mitosis and importance of species preservation, while working alongside renowned researchers and biologists.
In 2011 I was awarded a $10,000 grant through the Toyota Tapestry program to create and implement a year long science curriculum. During the 2011-12 school year a group of 16 students and myself strengthened our partnership with the Wildlife Science Center by co-creating a science and wildlife management project that included 2-3 visits a month plus ongoing service learning projects. The highlight of that amazing year long project was the building of a bear “playground”. Students consulted with the WSC staff to design a play structure large enough and strong enough to support the weight and enthusiasm of five black bears.
One of the mainstay projects every year for the class is the experimental design challenge. Students are given one of two challenges and asked to create a hypothesis, conduct tests, collect data and summarize results from the challenge. Most often the challenge has been to either create a non-lethal deterrent to keep wolves away from things (food sources) that they shouldn’t have without having to harm them or to design a food preference study to determine acceptable food sources for administering medications. In the past students have tested sight, smell and sound aversion deterrents. They have made “scarecrows”; tested mirrors; applied a variety of scents, both pleasant and foul smelling, to items; and experimented with a multitude of sounds including sirens, gunshots, lions roaring, and heavy metal music. In case you’re wondering, Kenny G was the best deterrent – who knew?
This year brings new changes once again. The biggest change is the brand new site in Stacy for the Wildlife Science Center. The site provides enclosures for the animals, which include not only wolves, but coyotes, foxes, bears, mountain lions, bobcats, lynx, and a student favorite – the porcupine. The new site is on 160 acres and gives the WSC staff and their visitors a wealth of new teaching and learning opportunities. The other change for NWPHS students is the move to all day project based learning. All day PBL means that students will be visiting the center once a month throughout the school year for the entire day. This model will provide students the time to dig deeper into their projects, spend more time with experimental design, and provide the WSC with additional service learning project time.
As I walked through the impressive new site with wolves to the left of me and bears to my right I reflected on how lucky I have been to be able to provide students with experiences that engage, empower and excite their learning – as well as my own. I am thrilled to think about where students will take their discoveries this year. Stay tuned as we share our adventures on FaceBook and other social media throughout the year.