Shaking Hands with Forest Park

By Liz Lyons | April 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2004

"I'll show you how to put the worm on your hook," said Dennis Cooke, a Missouri Department of Conservation Outdoor Skills Specialist. "Then you're on your own."

Doris Adams, a St. Louis area teacher and a first-time angler, awkwardly flung her wormed hook into the heavily stocked Forest Park Hatchery Lake. It landed with a plop. Before the ripples rolled away, her bobber plunged. She excitedly set the hook and reeled in the first fish she had ever caught.

"Oh my goodness!" she screamed. "Look at him! I want to hold him!"

Doris and 26 other St. Louis area teachers were enjoying new outdoor experiences as part of the eight-day Forest Park Voyagers Teachers' Academy. The Voyagers workshop shows teachers how to help their students explore and enjoy the natural resources of Forest Park, one of St. Louis' oldest and best-known urban parks.

The Conservation Department has helped preserve much of Forest Park's natural resources through funding or management, and the Voyagers program is a natural extension of those efforts.

"We wanted to help teachers recognize the outdoor learning opportunities in the park," said Patti Redel, Outreach and Education Regional Supervisor for the Department. "Urban students don't have to drive very far to see many different ecosystems, including an upland forest, stream, wetland and lakes. We created the Teachers' Academy to show them what opportunities are available in the Park and how bringing students to the park could help the teachers meet their educational objectives."

The Voyagers program is founded on the principle of experiential, hands-on education. People learn best not just by doing, but by doing and then thinking about what they have done, what it means and how they might do things differently. The park setting, with its many opportunities to physically interact with nature, is perfect for this type of education.

"If we are fishing to catch a fish, it is just fishing," explained Jim H. Wilson, E. Desmond Lee Professor for Experiential Education. "But if we catch a fish, find out what fish eat, what the oxygen level and temperature of the water mean to that fish and how the time of day affects fishing success, and if we then figure out how we might use that information to catch other fish or create better fish habitat, it becomes a learning experience."

During the Voyagers program, teachers see how art, history, math, science and writing blend into a comprehensive learning experience. Teaching their students to fish, for example, also provides the teachers an opportunity to discuss aquatic ecology, food webs, water quality and the connection of people to nature.

Immersion Day

Teachers begin the Academy with a complete immersion in Forest Park and its resources. They first learn practical details about the park, such as where the bathrooms are, and where 150 students can get drinking water. Teachers are then sent to secluded spots in the forest where they can immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, smells and feel of nature without being distracted by people. The teachers are asked to record their impressions and feelings by writing or drawing in a nature journal.

"I didn't like the journaling idea at first, but this is different," said Meri Ellen Brooks, an eighth-grade language arts teacher. "It's not about writing or drawing; it's about creating something. I get it now."

With these experiences fresh in their minds, teachers begin the more practical work of learning how to teach in the park.

A River Runs Through It

The Academy examines the relation of three Forest Park ecosystems - lakes, riparian areas, and forests - to the recently redeveloped River des Peres. On the second day, teachers visit the Conservation Department's Forest Park lakes to study aquatic ecology. Missouri teachers can reserve these lakes for aquatic educational field experiences for their students.

Using kits provided by Forest Park Forever's Eco-lab, they can test a body of water's pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrate and phosphate levels, and temperature. They can use the Eco-lab's dip nets and search for aquatic macroinvertebrates. They can even fish in the well-stocked aquatic education lakes and taste a sample of fried fish. The Department can help organize such events and provides a free instructional resource book, "Fishing for Answers."

On Day 3, teachers go to the river to study the riparian areas up close. They investigate riparian plant and animal communities in the park, and learn how those compare with other riparian areas.

The focus of Day 4 is urban forests. Teachers learn about Kennedy Forest's history and its importance in the park's watershed. They measure trees and evaluate the health of the forest. Kennedy Forest, a hotspot for migratory birds, also is an excellent place for teachers to hone their birdwatching skills.

The Academy program is much more than "a walk in the park" for these teachers. Active and unusual games are an important part of the program, and teachers often get wet or dirty as they explore the outdoors.

The three days of the "The River Runs Through It" portion of the Academy are the program's core. They provide teachers with knowledge, hands-on experiences, and interdisciplinary lessons in three different areas within the park. Teachers are then ready to build their own Forest Park lessons.

The teachers then divide into small groups according to the locations in the park they most want to explore with their students. Each group creates a series of lessons that include more than one subject, meets the school's curriculum needs and carries a message of stewardship for the park.

On Day 8, the last day of the Academy, Voyagers teachers hear each group's lesson ideas. Most are highly creative. For example, last summer, the team of Julie Burnette, Jesse Todd, Rebecca Dodd and Amy Marvel created "Harmony in Kennedy." During this program, the students will connect nature with musical themes in Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" during several seasonal field trips to Kennedy Forest. Their students will create sound maps, word maps, poetry and artwork using only natural materials gathered using ethical techniques.

Teachers benefit both from developing their own lesson plans and by hearing the details of lesson plans developed by others. By the end of the program, they have an arsenal of tools for helping students learn more about the outdoors at Forest Park.

Many teachers were amazed at the activities they ended up enjoying. They saw changes in themselves and realized the potential Forest Park has to change their students, too.

"At first, I didn't like the idea of looking at bugs," said Doris Adams with a laugh, "but then I became fascinated by seeing changes in the wetland ecosystem. I enjoyed it so much!"

"I feel so blessed that I found this Academy," Angela Breitenstein said. "I'm going to leave a 'Gone Fishing' sign on my classroom door with the (Missouri Assessment Program) standards that relate to fishing right next to it."

"I'm inspired," said Julie Burnette, displaying the enthusiasm she hopes her students will have when they come to Forest Park. "Let's take this back to our schools and spread it like wildfire."

For more information about this summer's Forest Park Voyagers Teachers' Academy, visit <> or call Liz Lyons at (314) 301-1500, ext. 2243. triangle

Academy Helpers

Many groups and organizations are partners in The Forest Park Voyagers Teacher's Academy. In addition several trusts and private enterprises have lent their support.

Voyager Partners

  • Forest Park Forever
  • Missouri Botanical Garden
  • Missouri Department of Conservation
  • Missouri Historical Society
  • St. Louis Art Museum
  • St. Louis Science Center
  • St. Louis Zoo
  • St. Louis Department of Parks, Recreation & Forestry

Voyager Sponsors

The Employees Community Fund of

  • Boeing St. Louis
  • Citigroup
  • Clifford Willard Gaylord Foundation
  • Edward Chase Garvey Memorial Foundation
  • John R. Goodall Foundation
  • Anne Lehmann Charitable Trust

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler