Exploring nature’s classroom

  • eric aldrich

    eric aldrich

  • eric aldrich

On one of the coldest mornings in December, a bus from South Meadow School in Peterborough stops along a remote stretch of Old Greenfield Road and unloads a few dozen eighth graders. From the warmth of the bus, they move straight into a small clearing in the cold, snowy woods.

No stalling and no complaining among these teens. Like the morning a day earlier, they circle up for introductions to the next few hours’ schedule, all outside.

South Meadow and Great Brook Middle School’s eighth graders have been visiting Otter Brook Farm’s 1,800 acres for six years now, from pleasant fall days, through winter coldness and into spring sunshine, mud and black flies. While the land may be called Otter Brook Farm, only part of it is actually farm; the rest is forest, streams and wetlands, an outdoor classroom and much of it protected from development.

The youths split into three groups with their proxy teachers, all gifted and experienced naturalists. With Laurel Swope from the Harris Center for Conservation Education, they’ll look for signs of a non-native invasive pest that threatens New Hampshire’s hemlock stands, the insidious hemlock woolly adelgid.

Another group follows Rick Van de Poll of Ecosystem Management Consultants, a veteran ecologist and remarkable environmental educator who leads them through a fun, breathless game exploring the world of coyotes, bobcats and other predators and their prey.

The third group follows Bryn Dumas from Otter Brook Farm in Peterborough. Dumas leads his animated group through powdery woods seeking sign of white-tailed deer, like buck rubs, scrapes and browse.

Hands-on learning

Each group’s exercise follows the spirit of fun and inquiry, keeping students so occupied that they may not even realize what and how they are learning. But soon enough, it sinks in. Some even forget how cold it is.

After closely checking hemlock boughs for nearly an hour, eighth grader Lexi Hill of Greenfield stops to explain the value of learning in this open-air classroom.

“It’s hands-on learning,” Hill said. “We get to see and touch actual things. We learn things here we can’t really learn in a classroom.”

Otter Brook Farm’s varied lands are well-suited to the partnership with local schools and the Harris Center, according to Rick Van de Poll. Roughly half in Peterborough, half in Greenfield, the 1,800 acres in several lots offers regular learning sites like Bogle Brook, where students study stream life. There’s Otter Brook, a great site for studying amphibians and reptiles. Other sites are perfect for fall mushroom forays and spring maple tapping.

Van de Poll completed an exhaustive natural resource inventory on the lands a few years ago, giving the owners and educators a sense of what the land offers as an outdoor classroom. Since then, the program has expanded to include sixth, eighth, ninth and tenth graders in the Conval Regional School District.

Great Brook eighth grade teacher Emily Wrubel likes how her students’ regular visits to Otter Brook Farm helps them develop relationships with mentoring educators like Swope, Van de Poll and Dumas, and also with the land itself.

Rhythm of the seasons

“They see change through the year and a sort of rhythm of the seasons that those of us who spend a lot of time out-of-doors get,” Wrubel said. “They get their hands dirty. They find where the mushrooms grow themselves, discover just how much life is lurking under the surface of the stream, and actually make holes in trees to get the sap or count the rings.”

Another teacher joining the frigid walk in the hunt for the hemlock woolly adelgid is language teacher Lori Groleau. She said the school’s visits to Otter Brook Farm provide a valuable learning experience that students simply can’t get in the classroom.

“When we come here, it’s an intense amount of time on one topic, in one place,” Groleau said. “They just don’t get that during the normal day at school. Plus, it’s outside.”

The trips produce something you can’t replicate in the classroom, according to Wrubel. She recalls a visit one April day years ago, when her students were standing by Bogle Brook. One student turned to her and asked, “Why does it keep coming?”

“He was marveling at the stream, wondering about where the water came from and how it could just keep flowing,” Wrubel said. “You can't produce that sense of wonder in the classroom.”

Lessons from Otter Brook Farm vary with the seasons. Forest types in the fall to acquaint them with the place. Then mushrooms. Then tracking in winter, along with invasive pests, like hemlock woolly adelgid.

As the school year’s conclusion approaches in June, students create their own research project, based on scientific principles and their own inquiry and investigation. In June, they present their findings to their peers, who will within a few months, be their classmates at Conval Regional High School.

The experience of real science

It’s also a chance for students to give back to Otter Brook Farm, with some doing trail work or projects around the farm.

This is the time when students really shine, according to Wrubel. “After the year of investigating various questions posed by adults, collecting data in ways set-up by adults, my students really step it up and put together excellent student-run investigations.”

Harris Center teacher-naturalist Susie Faber has seen the Otter Brook Farm experience instill a sense of wonder from the beginning six years ago.

“What’s great about the Otter Brook Farm program is that it gets kids outside, giving them real experience with hands-on science in a real-world scenario,” Faber said. “They’re working together, solving problems. And it’s all outside. This is important now, especially because children in middle and high school experience less time outdoors for learning. So, when they’re at Otter Brook Farm looking for hemlock woolly adelgid, they’re really looking for it. This is the experience of real science.”

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

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