Take 200 fourth-graders out of the classroom for a day, place them in the outdoors, and the result is amazement, new insights and questions. Lots of questions.
Honey bee producer Wayne Rusch fielded a swarm of questions while explaining his work during last Wednesday’s annual Nature Field Day at Piepenberg Park.
“Can bees sting other bees?” a girl asked. Rusch’s answer: Yes, a hive intruder can be stung by another bee, and it will die.
“How much honey will a bee produce in its lifetime?” another student asked. Rusch’s reply: About one teaspoonful.
“When a bee stings a person, will it die?” someone asked. Answer: Most certainly.
Then came what was perhaps Rusch’s most fun fact: “Honey is one food that never spoils,” he explained. “They have even found honey stored in the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs and it was still good.”
Rusch, one of a dozen conservationists who offered time and expertise to explain the natural world to students, has been talking to students at Nature Field Day for about 10 years. Wednesday was Park Elementary’s day at Piepenberg. The day before, more than 175 students from the county’s other schools participated in presentations at the park.
The annual two-day outing has been running every May for 30 years, said Ryan Freitag, manager of the McLeod County Soil and Water Conservation District, one of the event’s three sponsors. The other two sponsors are McLeod County Parks and McLeod County Corn & Soybeans Growers.
Presenters – who staffed eight different stations – kept their talks simple, with students moving to a new station every 20 minutes. Visuals and hands-on demonstrations drove home the main messages. Station presentations reinforced lessons that many students have already learned in school.
“Most of the stations cover what’s in the kids’ backyards – and this connects them with the outdoors,” Freitag said. “We’ve learned that a presentation with a lot of interactivity and involvement seems to be the key.”
At the Recycling Station, students built their own mini terrariums out of used plastic bottles.
“The last thing we want to do is to throw the bottle in the garbage,” said Sarah Young of McLeod County Environmental Services.
Young’s talk emphasized the 3 R’s: reduce, recycle and reuse. Putting things in the garbage – where it will eventually end up in a landfill – is the last-resort option. “A landfill is like a big bathtub in the ground with a liner in it,” Young explained.
At the Trees Station, students learned to make a helicopter out of paper – similar to a samara that floats down from many ash and maple trees. Students learned the samara’s flattened surfaces allow it to carry seed farther away from the tree. They also learned there are two types of trees – conifers and deciduous. And they learned trees have many purposes, from supplying the air with oxygen, sheltering animals, holding soil, shading people, and providing fruit and building materials.
At the Snow Plow Safety Station, students were able to paint a message on the huge truck’s blade. The county highway department’s Tom Kube explained the fully equipped truck cost more than $400,000.
Students were amazed that a truck could cost more than a house. “It’s just crazy how big and expensive it is,” Cael Taraldson said.
At the A Drop in the Bucket Station, the cost-conscious fourth-grader was likewise astonished to learn how little of the Earth’s water is available for drinking. “You have to be very careful how you use it and don’t waste it,” he said. Asked how he might use what he learned, he said taking shorter showers might become a new routine.
Anne Hall, a hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, explained that only 3% of the planet’s water is fresh water – not salt water – and that only a tiny fraction of that is not frozen or polluted. Hall described the three major components of the water cycle – precipitation, evaporation and condensation – which were also described at the Recycling Station, where students built their mini-terrariums.
At the Water Quality Station, students learned they can become a citizen scientist just like master naturalist Kerry Ward. Ward participates in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Volunteer Water Monitoring Program. In her role, she pays weekly visits to a stream northwest of Plato, where she takes water quality measurements and reports data to the MPCA. The program relies on more than 1,300 volunteers to monitor 612 streams and 964 lakes. Their efforts, which total more than 7,000 hours annually, help save taxpayers more than $200,000.
“People like me can help the MPCA and other agencies keep the environment safe,” she said. “Anybody can become a citizen scientist.”
She added that volunteers also help with bee identification, serve as aquatic invasive species detectors and emerald ash borer detectors, and assist with pond studies.
At the Minnesota DNR’s Enforcement Station, conservation officer Zach Larson asked students what should happen to hunters and anglers who take wildlife illegally. Students resoundingly replied with demands for fines, loss of hunting and fishing privileges, and in some cases, jail time.
Larson showed an example of a trophy 8-point buck in the southeastern Minnesota. Its poacher lost his hunting privileges for five years, was fined more than $2,100, and spent 245 days in jail.
Another hunter bagged two cubs in Aitkin County and paid fines. One cub was sent to the taxidermist and was displayed at the DNR station with other poached animals. “That bear didn’t get to grow up and eat trout,” a student exclaimed.
At the DNR Fisheries Station, walleye, carp and other fish caught in Lake Belle earlier in the day were swimming in small pools where students could get a close-up look. Fisheries technician Hannah Anema offered a plethora of interesting fish facts such as:
“Have you heard walleye like to bump their bait before biting it?”
“Fish can’t see very far out in front of their body – maybe only 15 feet – but they can see all around themselves except for directly behind their heads.”
“Fish don’t have ears on the sides of their heads – they’re inside their heads right behind their eyes. They hear through vibrations.”
Some students shared their own fishing stories after hearing Anema’s talk.
“I actually caught a northern pike by hooking it in the eye,” claimed Lincoln Bowie.
Lucius Schlueter – who described the presentation as “cool!” – said he learned how to handle a bullhead and be to be less fearful of a sting.
“Now if I catch one,” he said, “I won’t be afraid.”