Marty Egeland had the seventh-graders’ attention even before he showed them his collection of antlers and horns.
The topic was wildlife and the habitat critters need to survive.
“What are the four things an animal needs to survive?” Egeland asked.
The students quickly came up with three—food, water and shelter—but the fourth took some hints.
The answer was space.
“People tend to forget about space,” Egeland said. “Think about it—it’s the same things we need to survive. What if you had a mom, dad and six brothers and sisters; would you like to live in a one-bedroom apartment? Space is pretty important to animals.”
Egeland, an outreach biologist for the state Game and Fish Department in northeast North Dakota, was leading a presentation on wildlife as part of Eco-Ed Camp at Turtle River State Park.
The Grand Forks County Soil Conservation District has hosted Eco-Ed camps at the park for 16 years. Monday’s camp, the first of eight daylong sessions set for the next two weeks, brought more than 100 seventh-graders from South Middle School in Grand Forks to the park.
The other half of South’s seventh-grade class will attend next Monday’s camp.
The rushing waters of the Turtle River, swollen by recent rains, provided a fitting backdrop for the students to learn more about the natural world. Traces of yellow in the leaves and a bite in the air hinted at the approach of fall as the students split into five groups and spent 35 minutes at each of six outdoor “classrooms” focused on soils, wetlands, prairies, forests, wildlife and water quality.
The setting was ideal.
“It’s awesome,” said Erika Kolbow, park naturalist at Turtle River State Park. who taught the session on forests. “Most of the kids come, and they don’t know much about nature, so it’s great to get them outside and actually involved.
“And what better place to do it than out here? You can do all of the stations in one spot.”
Lori Frank, state Eco-Ed coordinator, said the origins of the program date to the 1980s, when teachers and natural resource professionals saw a need to get students more aware of nature.
“They felt that (environmental) education was so important, and especially in the big schools,” Frank said. “By getting them out here, we try and do as many hands-on things with them as we can. That’s one of the requirements.
“Our seventh-graders are going to be our leaders someday, and it’s time to start with them early.”
Soil conservation districts across the state can receive funding for Eco-Ed camps, and nearly 75 percent of those districts offer some kind of programming, Frank said.
“We would love to see it 100 percent, but that’s pretty tough to do,” she said.
Still, more than 3,000 North Dakota students participate in Eco-Ed programs in a typical year, Frank said. The core format must include soils, wetlands, prairies, forestry and water quality. Students also are tested before and after the camps to provide proof the curriculum is effective.
“We have to show we are teaching them, that it’s not just a day to go out and have fun,” Frank said.
Kristine Lofgren, watershed coordinator for the Grand Forks County Soil Conservation District, said the county is the only one to offer eight days of programming.
“We’ve consistently been the largest,” Lofgren said. “We probably have 15 different instructors. It’s hard to get everybody for the whole two weeks.”
Frank, who works for the Barnes County Soil Conservation District in Valley City, N.D., led Monday’s session on water quality at Turtle River and said she plans to be in Devils Lake on Wednesday.
“Each district has the leeway to do whatever works for them; it’s fun,” Frank said. “It’s professionals teaching our students. Teachers have their niches, but they don’t have all the information that a soil scientist has coming out and working with the kids or a range specialist. It’s a good program, a really good program, and I’d like to see it keep going.”