Discovering Nature In The City

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

"Can we do it again?" asked Emily Bennett, a fourth grader from Gladstone Elementary School. She and four classmates just finished following a scent trail, where they used their sense of smell and knowledge of animal signs to identify animals.

Before Conservation Education Program Coordinator Bob Fluchel had a chance to say, "Yes," Emily and the rest of her group were already hot on the trail of yet another animal.

The students were enthusiastically participating in Exploring the Outdoors, one of the six educational workshops held at the newly opened Discovery Center. The center is part of Kansas City's Urban Conservation Campus and the Conservation Department's newest educational facility. The Discovery Center's building uses innovative conservation techniques (see side bar), but the workshops are where conservation ideas really flourish.

"The best clues were the tracks," says Ruben Paniagua, who tracked a chipmunk, deer and raccoon in this indoor activity before it was time to move to the next station.

Twenty boxes on the scent trail held the clues, which included scat (made of a very realistic, unscented plastic), food droppings and nesting materials. The scents, in vials in front of each box, were of common items kids could identify, such as chocolate and vanilla. When the same scent was followed, the child could find clues to the same animal.

In addition to indoor workshop activities like the scent trail, they go outside to hone their newly acquired skills on the 10-acre grounds. When 4th-graders from Gladstone Elementary venture outside to look for animal signs, Jesus Villescas was the first to spot a partial track in the dirt. By looking at his field guide, he knew it had to be either a red fox, a dog or a coyote because a claw mark was visible.

"Which one would you probably find right here next to the sidewalk where people walk?" asked Education Specialist Amy Hite.

"A dog," answered Jesus. The rest of the group agrees, and they all write this observation in their journals.

Next, the group finds a hole in the dirt. Inside they discover a small piece of a nut shell. The children consult their field guides and decide the shell must have left by a squirrel. After several inquiries about how to spell squirrel, they enter the word in their journal.

In each workshop, the kids receive journals to note their observations about nature, just like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark did during their Corps of Discovery journey along the Missouri River from 1804 to 1806.

The Discovery Center is a tribute to the knowledge this expedition brought back to the East. A statue of the original Corps of Discovery is in the center's lobby, along with a mural showing how a bend in the Missouri River, (in present-day downtown Kansas City) probably looked in the early 1800s. In the workshops, the students study how the Kansas City area has changed since the expedition passed through.

In "Nature's Aquarium," a watershed model is based on the Missouri and Blue rivers and Brush Creek, which is just south of the Discovery Center. The interchangeable panels show how the stream would look in three different stages: (1) pre-settlement, (2) urbanization, with lots of concrete and no thought of runoff and flood, and (3) urbanization, with conservation practices, such as parking lots slanted away from the creek and with green spaces full of plants that retain moisture.

Michael Paiva, a volunteer at the Discovery Center, flipped a switch, and water showered down on the model. A group of children from Hale-Cook Elementary quickly saw what happens when it rains in each of the situations.

"This is fun," said Ryan Gilyard, 10. "I learned about flooding and how the city should have been built. We should try to improve the watershed because it affects people."

The Department's education specialists work with the classroom teachers to prepare the kids for the on-site visit. Each curriculum was carefully developed with the students, the teachers and the state of Missouri's educational objectives in mind. With all the preparation, the on-site visit provides lots of fast-paced fun based on the skills the students learned at school.

When the Kids and Cops Adventure Club attended the Nature's Bounty workshop this summer, they studied fisheries management. Along the way, they picked up lots of good fishing tips. In addition, the youngsters, who ranged in age from 10 to 13 years old, figured out how many fish could be stocked in a pond at the center. They also took water temperatures and identified fish in an aquarium. Afterwards, the group learned to make fishing jigs. Each child received a fly tying kit, yellow feathers and black chenille.

"Let's make a bumble bee," suggested Education Specialist Todd Meese.

"I can't do it," protested one child.

"Yes, you can, " assured Todd. And, with a little help, each child did it.

Todd informed them that the bumble bee can be used to catch crappie, bluegill, bass and even trout.

"Can the fish see well?" asked Terry Mizener Jr., 13, while tying on the feathers.

Todd explained that bass are sight feeders, so how well they see depends on how clear the water is. After the kids added the black chenille to make the jig look like a bee, Todd explained how to do the final touch. "Tear the feather off by hand so it will look natural. If you cut it with the scissors, it won't look right."

With freshly tied jigs in hand, everyone wanted to know where to buy their own kit.

"I like to make jigs, said Ronnie Lovett, 11. "Now I know how to make lures cheaper."

The kids also learned which fish prefer certain water temperatures, a useful lesson for 10-year-old Dominick Bell.

"I'm going to put more line between the hook and the bobbers because the fish are deeper when it's hot," he said.

Another popular exercise is the fishing simulator, which lets the kids feel what it is like to have a big bass on the line. After bringing in her giant bass while she watched it on a monitor, 10-year-old Elizabeth Mizener said, "If you catch a heavy fish, you have to keep your rod up."

Those who didn't follow Elizabeth's advice watched their bass go under the boat or into the weeds. No one in this class lost their fish when it jumped out of the water, but it wasn't easy.

"I've caught little fish before, but I never had one that heavy," said Randall Wright Jr., 12. "I think I know how to catch a big one now."

Other workshops include "Nature's Palette," where students study the parts of a tree, then use native wood to create sculptures, or leaves to make prints on a printing press.

In "Woodworking for Wildlife," Education Specialist Angie Henderson teaches students about bird habitat and feeding habits, and then gives them a lesson on hammering nails. The result is that all the children return home with a bird feeder they made themselves. They also learn where to put it and what feed they need to attract their favorite birds.

"I'm going to put my feeder next to my tree," said Victor Blas, a student at Gladstone Elementary, "and I'm going to get cardinals to come to it."

In "Nature's Garden and Greenhouse," third-graders learned the importance of scoring wildlife seeds while shaking tiny partridge pea seeds in a small jar lined with sandpaper.

"Shake it, shake it, shake it," sang Myra Becerra, and the rest of her classmates joined in.During the four minutes it took to score the seeds so they can germinate, Education Specialist Shea Bergman took them on a walking tour of the building's wastewater treatment facility.

"It's an indoor wetlands that cleanses the water from the toilets," Shea said.

"Yuck!" exclaimed the class in unison.

After the water is filtered by passing through several tubs of aquatic plants, the water then passes through a layer of sand and gravel for further cleaning. From there, it eventually flows through an indoor stream and waterfall. The water would have to be treated with chemicals to be used as drinking water, Shea said, but it is clean enough to be recycled through the toilets and the wetlands outside. The kids nod in agreement, but no one touches the waterfall.

In another part of Nature's Garden workshop, students who studied butterflies are creating clay sculptures of butterfly gardens, complete with flowers, water gardens and places for people to sit and watch them.

"I made a place for the butterflies to sit and a place for the cocoons to be placed, said Tyler Reeter. "Butterflies eat nectar from flowers," added third-grader Christopher Uribe, explaining why his sculpture contained so many plants.

After the kids leave the center, the classroom teachers reinforce what they learned with follow-up lessons provided by the Discovery Center staff. Math, science, history, writing and reading are all part of these sessions.

"These student-based, hands-on lessons emphasize problem solving. There's no busy work," said Amy Hite. "We also make it easy on the teachers by providing materials. All they have to do is make copies and have color pencils available."

Despite the fun, relaxed atmosphere, the staff has to help the students overcome a few hurdles.

"We have an easy subject to teach," said Bob Fluchel, "but we have to get the kids over their fears of bugs and swooping birds. And because the center is a building in the middle of the city, the city kids feel secure."

It's so safe that some kids don't want to leave.

"Can we live here?" asked some of the kids as they prepared to board the buses back to their school.

"There's no place to sleep," Bob said.

"We'll sleep on the floor," replied one of the budding conservationists.

Educational resources

Teachers, group leaders and families can find valuable resources at the Discovery Center. Here are a few:

  • Outdoor Teacher Resource Center is packed with videos, books, sample lesson plans for teachers to preview.
  • Teacher workshops offer graduate credit and help teachers plan their own conservation-related lessons.
  • Discovery Trunks are available for loan to classroom teachers and group leaders. Filled with hands-on activities, each trunk features a different conservation-related theme.
  • Teacher orientations provide elementary and secondary teachers the background they need to prepare their class for a visit to the center's workshops.
  • The five Discovery Center workshops are available to registered families and youth groups on Saturday. For a list of courses, call (816) 759-7300, ext. 0.

In harmony with nature

Just east of the Country Club Plaza, at 4750 Troost Ave. in Kansas City, is the Discovery Center Urban Conservation Campus. Here, in the heart of the city, is a place where students, teachers and other groups can learn skills to enjoy, protect and live with nature. Every aspect of this newly developed facility was designed to conserve natural resources, increase energy efficiency and reduce pollution.

  • Three types of photovoltaic cells are installed on greenhouses, the outdoor pavilion and the main entrance. The solar energy they capture feeds the buildings' main power grid.
  • A highly efficient heat pump heats and cools the building.
  • The center's roof beams are made of laminated wood. They're not solid, but are composed of smaller bits of wood integrated into a single unit. They are stronger than solid wood beams of the same size ,and because they are made from scrap wood pieces from other sources, the laminated beams actually conserve wood.
  • Recycled building material from demolished historic buildings helps preserve the past. The center used wood from an old warehouse in the K.C. River Market area and bricks from Kames School and Bunting Hardware Store downtown.
  • Instead of traditional concrete blocks, the center substituted calcium/silicate-based blocks that use less energy and create less air pollution when produced.
  • Rainwater from the roof is directed into a stream that feeds a wetland full of tadpoles, frogs, dragonflies and other aquatic animals and birds.
  • Bioswales throughout the parking lot collect runoff and filter oil and other chemicals from the water that enters Brush Creek.

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