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Outdoor classroom serves as 150-acre sanctuary for learning

Center gets every grade outdoors 

Lowell — While pretending to be birds migrating south, Murray Lake Elementary School third-graders Zach Simkins, Jayce Shepard and Brady Burns met a tragic fate: shot down by someone with a BB gun. 

The trio squawked in dismay, ending their simulated experience in the woods at the Wittenbach/Wege Agriscience & Environmental Education Center and having learned an important lesson about the dangers birds face during their 1,000-plus mile journeys.

“It makes me think about how hard it is to travel south. Some birds make it, and some don’t,” Brady said.

The simulation led the faux feathered friends to tree stations, which pointed them in different directions along their migratory path. They faced storms and obstructive buildings. They benefited from strong tailwinds and nurturing wetlands. 

Following the simulation, Courtney Cheers, director of the Wittenbach/Wege Center, asked the students to gather around. Seven of them had survived the flight and three had not, they learned. 

“Kids are playing a game, but they are learning about the predator-prey relationship,” Cheers said.

  ‘I love what we do here because I feel like we are building these kids’ nature knowledge.’

—  Courtney Cheers, Wittenbach/Wege Agriscience & Environmental Center director

Acres & Acres to Learn On

The migration lesson was one of many based on life sciences the students have learned thanks to the center at 11715 Vergennes St. SE, across from Lowell High School, since they were in kindergarten.

All elementary students in Lowell Area Schools visit the center at least twice each school year. They see and do the things they learn about in class: frog habitats, native wildflowers, maple sugar tree-tapping and vegetable cultivating.

“All of our programs are designed to correlate with grade-level science standards,” Cheers said. “We’re picking (lessons) out of their science standards that make sense to teach outside and hands on.”

The center is a 150-acre outdoor classroom consisting of 88 acres owned by LAS that adjoins a 62-acre nature preserve owned by the Land Conservancy of West Michigan. The district has operated the center since the 1999-2000 school year, and Cheers has worked there since 2001, beginning as a naturalist, and as director since 2014.

Among the trees and along the winding trails, students recently learned about animal winter survival — migration is an example — while chatting about Michigan animals like brook trout, turtles and frogs. They also learned about food chains and food webs, and planted seed balls made from native wildflowers seeds they had harvested in the fall.

Learning the Lessons, Doing the Research

While inside and peering through the center’s large windows, students counted birds for Project FeederWatch, a November-April survey of birds.

Third-graders Allie Lindquist and Beau Cosgrove used binoculars, scanning the feeders, deck and nearby trees. “A chickadee! I see a chickadee. It’s a black-capped chickadee,” said Allie, referencing a bird-species guide.

Naturalist Shannon Goodwin explained that their bird inventory would be added to important work.

“This is where you guys are becoming actual scientists,” she said. “The cool thing about that is your research is going to be entered into the computer and be available for every other scientist all around the world to see. That’s pretty cool for being third-graders, don’t you think?”

Cheers credits those types of immersive experiences to students’ becoming interested in agriscience, ecology and other areas of study. Lowell second-graders look forward to Maple Syrup Days, when they learn the science of maple sugaring and its history and traditions. Fourth-graders plant a garden, harvesting food for Flat River Outreach Ministries. Fifth-graders build fires and shelters in a survival program. 

The foundation of knowledge over the elementary years leads middle-schoolers to participate in the center’s summer camps and prepares high-schoolers for agriscience classes, which include plant and animal science and natural resources. High-school students also volunteer and work as interns.

“I love what we do here, because I feel like we are building these kids’ nature knowledge,” Cheers said. “Their experiences build on one another, so they are using the same tools they learned in kindergarten and first grade to help them graduate to the next step.”

Read more from Lowell: 
Students spruce up greenhouse, make home for houseplants
Arrow points toward learning at summer camp

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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