Young Naturalists Program: Highlights

The Environmental Interpretive Center: A welcoming environment!

Last week was the first week of the 4-day Young Naturalist Program at the Environmental Interpretive Center at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. Taking the style of a summer day camp, students are invited to explore the natural area with interpretive naturalist guides. Each day we explored a different topic both outdoors and in the lab. Here are some highlights from this week.

Day 1: Come to Your Senses


9:30: Journal building and Decorating

We will use the journal activity as an arrival buffer and to assess the young naturalists’  interests and knowledge backgrounds.

          Tree cookie name tags

10:00: Introduction and vocabulary instructions

10:10: Icebreaker activity: Describe journal decoration

10:30: Sensory Walk (All)

Sound: birds, frogs and toads (Rose Garden and Lake)

Smell: sassafras, etc. (Jensen’s meadow)

Touch: cleavers, bark of elm and hackberry, etc.

11:45: Journal reflections at councill ring

With hopes to provide a fruitful few days in the natural world, we spent day one focusing on using the senses. Before the day’s activities began, each student got to make their own ” Tree Cookie” name tag — a branch of oak sawed and sanded into 4″ discs, with a loop of string drawn through a drilled hole– as well as their own nature journals (using construction paper, blank sheets, a cardstock binding, and string. ) Students got to design the cover with their favorite things from nature; we went around to introduce ourselves and our nature journal designs.

Ice-breaker activity: How does the cover of your Nature Journal tell us about you?

After the getting-to-know-you activity, we got ready to take our first stroll into the natural area. Before we entered the trails, Alexandria (one of the leaders) stopped to point out some poison ivy. You can identify it from its three leaves and blushing stems — two of the outer leaves usually have thumbs, which you can remember by placing your hands over each other — thumbs out — like this:

Poison Ivy: "Leaves of three, let it be!"

With that out of the way, we continued on our sensory adventure!

Most of the kids were very interested in using their sense of touch. They were surprised to touch leaves that felt like sandpaper as well as tree bark that looked like it had giant, hard warts:

Bark that's good for a backscratch!

We also used our noses — to smell things like wild mint, sweet sassafras leaves and spicy sassafras roots, spicebush twigs, wild roses, as well as these funny green “plunkers” that we found on the trail:

Examining a smelly, green fruit found underneath a big Black Walnut tree.

Smells like a citrus -- what could it be?

Two more of the green mystery fruits... They are about the size of walnuts! (Hint, hint). I wonder what is inside!

We used our eyes and ears all the meanwhile to experience all of the natural splendors in between.

We heard a little bird singing “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle”, as well as some kind of amphibious creature making a deep therummmmping noise by the edge of Fairlane Lake:

Trying to spot the source of the strange noise on the edge of Fairlane Lake. Kids quickly learn that they have the best chance at seeing it if they look quietly.

The culprit! An American Bullfrog.

Before we knew it, an entire hour went by outside — it is funny how fast time flies once you get settled into a natural area. After walking back to the council ring and debriefing, we ended our day by reflecting in our nature journals. The nature journals were a new addition this year; the decision to add them came after being inspired by the field journals that Field Biology students are required to keep, as well as Leslie Walker’s excellent book, Keeping a Nature Journal (featuring a foreward by ecologist E.O. Wilson). You can get a good preview of it here on Google Books. Regular journaling should be  part of any naturalist’s core routine; this book should be an essential part of any naturalist’s library.

Students are given 15 minutes at the end of every day to quietly reflect in their nature journals.

Day 2: Pond Exploration


9:30: Arrival buffer

          Informal gathering and discussion (All)

Show young naturalists Sara’s stuffed predacious diving beetle larva.

9:40:   Introduction and vocabulary instructions

10:00: Pond Exploration

15 min: Frog Count

30 min: Scooping

15 min: Buffer time to walk back with creatures

11:00: Lab

5 min:   Microscope introduction

25 min: Look at the pond creatures under the microscopes

             Sketches of pond creatures

11:30: Identification discussion

Focus on: taxonomical grouping, life stages

11:45: Journal reflections at the counsel ring 

We spent the second day exploring life in and around the Rose Garden Pond at the historic Fairlane Estate. Once owned by Henry & Clara Ford, the pond — once a blue reflecting pool, surrounded by roses — has grown into a rich, waterlily-choked habitat ideal for many forms of aquatic life. Although some who are interested in preserving historic places might see the pond as overgrown and in a state of disrepair, it has served as a place where thousands of schoolchildren have been able to discover wonders of nature that they aren’t able to experience anywhere else: the life cycles of dragonflies, the plucky sound of the green frog and the synchronous chirping of dozens of American toads, caddisflies wrapped inside of their portable stick  homes, bugs that swim upside down, the predaceous diving beetle larva’s mandibles opening dramatically as he boldly approaches his next snack…

Rose Garden Pond -- no more roses, but still full of wonders.

We started off with a frog count — how many green frogs can we count in the pond?  We divided the pond into four quadrants and sent a team to each one with a clipboard as well as a diagram of the pond. Students turned on their “frog vision” and spent about 10 minutes gazing at different parts of the pond. Each time they spotted a frog, they would mark its location on the map.

The longer you look, the better you seem to get at finding them… at least, that is how it always seems when looking for frogs hiding in lilies!

Green Frogs -- masters of camouflage!

In order to help collect more accurate data, each team was supervised by an adult leader who had to confirm each frog sighting. All together, we counted about 30 frogs (5 to 9 frogs in each quadrant). We drew a giant diagram on a flipchart and each student was invited up to mark where they had seen their frogs.  We then gathered to discuss the results: Did we find a lot, or a few? What does that say about the pond? How could we use frogs to chart the health of the pond over time?

After that, we dipped for insects and brought them back to the lab for closer inspection.

Looking at critters under the microscopes -- a whole new world!

Day 3: Party Underground


9:30: Pass out tree cookie name tags

        Starbucks shakers with assorted soil samples; general introduction to soil topic

        (9:40) Introduction and vocabulary instructions

9:45: Discussion of size, shape, density of clay, silt, sand.

        Percolation test at picnic tables + hypothesis    

10:00: Exploratory walk with soil core samplers focused on garden and areas without as many mosquitoes

11:15: Compost lab with sketching

  Worm bin discovery

  Microscopes on compost

11:50: Journal reflection at council ring

The topic of the third day was “soil”. We began by giving the students 3 cups — containing  gravel, sand, and clay — which they had to sort by particle size:

A team effort.

We would answer our question with the following experiment — “Soil Shakers” containing the three kinds of matter — gravel, sand & clay — suspended in water and sealed inside of a bottle (reused frapuccino bottles). After being shaken up and then allowed to settle, the finest particles should sift to the bottom; the medium will sift in the middle, and the largest particles will sit on the top. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way… let’s see how it went down:

Soil Shakers -- shake it up, baby!

After the shaking -- how do they look?

Kind of muddled! And without opening them up, it’s hard to see what material is what. Something to keep in mind for our next program, I guess!

Next, Dorothy — long time interpretive naturalist at the EIC– poured water into a prepared vase which was plugged with the same three materials. How long would it take for water to reach the bottom?

Layers of soil

Instead of clay from the earth, we used play clay… we apparently plugged it pretty well, because almost no water got to the bottom! Even so, this demonstration is a great way to teach about soil layers and permeability, and is something that the kids could put together themselves, in the classroom or outdoors.

We did one more demonstration — which material holds the most water? We answered it by pouring 500 mL of water through a fish net filled with either soil, gravel, or clay:

Holding up a net of wet soil.

If you can picture it, the soil held the most water — so much so that it looked like a sponge when we squeezed it. Soil is the best of the three at retaining water, but also nutrients (organic matter) and gases (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide), making soil the ideal medium (at least, of the three) for plants to grow in.

After that, we stretched our legs and went on a nature walk. This time, we took along the soil core sampler:

Cindy pulls a "core from the shore" (of Fairlane Lake).

Rolling clay from the soil core from Jensen's Meadow.

When we returned, we took a look at the compost bin — where their paper cups were being used as worm food:

The EIC compost bin.

Taking a closer look at the worm pee -- or was that worm tea? -- in the bottom-most layer.

We ended our day in the laboratory, looking at the compost under the microscope, and sketching what we saw — yep — in our  nature journals.

There's a party in the compost!

 Day 4: Ecology Discovery Day


9:30: Introduction, vocabulary instructions

9:45: Olfactory plant discovery

Spear mint, onion, strawberries, garlic mustard, creeping charlie, sassafras

10:00 Interpretive walk

  Outdoor search for “olfactory plant discovery” specimens

Hand lenses for herbivory lesson

Connections between organisms, food webs

11:00: Lab-Microscopes

Look at found leaves, plant parts under microscope

Leaf rubbings

Flower dissection  

11:45: Journal reflection at council ring

Take-home object for sketching

Sunflower celebration

The fourth and last day was probably the most fun. We started off with a group recap of everything we had covered so far: birds, frogs, bugs, soil, compost, weather, pollination, camouflage, exoskeletons, predators & prey, herbivory — and from that, invited students to find some CONNECTIONS between some of the things on the board. Insects pollinate; birds eat insects; predators eat birds; predators die and become part of the soil… this grand conversation allowed us to segue nicely into today’s theme: ECOLOGY!

Everything is connected!

We did a fun activity next: Dorothy handed a “field capsule” (a.k.a. film capsule) to each student, stuffed with a certain scent. In nature, many animals can identify groupmates with chemical cues; bees recognize their sisters with pheromones, and wolves recognize their pack by scent. Today, students had to sort themselves into groups by scent:

Is that funky smell coming from you or me?

Are we part of the same group?

Once the kids sorted themselves, they could open up their canister to see what caused their scent. Inside, there was sassafras sticks, wild onion, or mint.

After that, we went on a nature walk — to observe the sights, sounds, smells & feeling of the natural area one last time.

Using a hand lens to examine a caterpillar.

This caterpillar is presumed to be still at large. Unarmed.

Looking for the bullfrog again.

A doe with her fawn in Jensen's Meadow.

We collected some specimens to use back in the lab:

Specimen table.

We looked at some leaves, seeds, flowers, roots, fruits and other plant parts under the microscopes at one station:

Getting to the "root" of things...

Cultivating some future field biologists.

Dorothy led a flower dissection under the microscope at another station:

Flowers: up close and personal.

Trying to make sense of the flower diagram.

At the last station — my station — we used our specimens to do a little bit of ART!

Crayons and paper galore!

Rubbing the serrated leaf of the elm.

Comparing leaves of the white and red oak.

A pink leaf... nice!

We ended our day with one last nature journaling session:

Writing about the wild strawberries from the meadow.

Great drawing of one of the flowers they dissected!

Each student got a packet of sunflower seeds to take home. What a great week. we will hopefully see some of them again next year!


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