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
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
Day 2: Pond Exploration
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…
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!
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.
Day 3: Party Underground
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:
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:
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?
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:
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:
When we returned, we took a look at the compost bin — where their paper cups were being used as worm food:
We ended our day in the laboratory, looking at the compost under the microscope, and sketching what we saw — yep — in our nature journals.
Day 4: Ecology Discovery Day
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!
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:
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.
We collected some specimens to use back in the lab:
We looked at some leaves, seeds, flowers, roots, fruits and other plant parts under the microscopes at one station:
Dorothy led a flower dissection under the microscope at another station:
At the last station — my station — we used our specimens to do a little bit of ART!
We ended our day with one last nature journaling session:
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!