Discover Nature Schools intertwines learning and nature

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Kansas City
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Kansas City, Mo. – Fish were biting, tadpoles swam within reach of nets, and a farm road made a good hiking trail for a walk through the woods. Class was in session for fifth grade students, their teachers and parent helpers from EPiC Elementary School in Liberty. A field trip to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Platte Falls Conservation Area on June 14 capped off the students' studies using MDC’s Discover Nature Schools program.

“We love it,” said EPiC Principal Michelle Schmitz. “We believe it makes education real for kids. They’re excited to be here.”

MDC offers free classroom materials for the Discover Nature Schools program for all Missouri schools and home school educators. The books and teacher plans are integrated with Missouri state education standards. Materials vary for different education levels, from kindergarten through high school. Grants up to $1,000 are available for schools to buy hands-on nature study equipment. Plus MDC provides a $7 per student transportation reimbursement to help schools pay for field trip costs.

EPiC Elementary students divided into three groups and rotated to three learning stations. Students fished in a Platte Falls pond. At another pond, they used nets to scoop aquatic life like tadpoles from the shallows to study before releasing them back to the water. Adults led students on watershed hikes through fields and woodlands to talk about the value of rivers and water quality to people.

“This becomes our classroom,” Schmitz said of the field trip. “We don’t look at our classroom as four walls. We look at our classroom as the world.”

Discover Nature Schools classroom materials integrate subjects such as math and science with nature that a student in Missouri might encounter in their backyard, in a park or on a vacation within the state. Classroom materials and field trips are specialized according to students’ ages and learning abilities.

“They’re learning about places where they can connect with nature in their own community,” said Wendy Parrett, MDC education consultant. “They’re learning science through Missouri plants and animals.”

EPiC Elementary students in kindergarten through fourth grade earlier took field trips to the MDC’s Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center in Kansas City or the Burr Oak Woods Nature Center in Blue Springs. The fifth graders were in their final week of classes when they visited Platte Falls Conservation Area.

“This becomes our classroom for the day,” said Claudia Howerton, a teacher assisting with the fishing. “They get to come out and see what they’ve studied for real.”

EPiC, which stands for Every Person inspired to Create, used grant money to buy fishing rods and reels for the field trip. When the gear arrived, Howerton said, a group of boys in the class who had fished a lot took charge of rigging poles and showing their fellow students how to cast.

“When they take ownership of it, they go with it, and they love it,” she said.

For some students, the program provides a first introduction to nature and skills such as fishing. The field trips also introduce both students and parents to MDC conservation areas where they can enjoy the outdoors. Discover Nature Schools programs and field trips are available throughout the state.

“There are kids here today with all kinds of challenges,” Schmitz said. “But this breaks down the walls and they’re enjoying it. When they get here they’re changed from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can.’ “

MDC will host a training session for teachers applying for Discover Nature Schools grants on Thursday, June 22 at Burr Oak Woods Nature Center. Classroom materials are available for free to any educator. But for grants, teachers must take a six-hour training course. Other training courses will be scheduled later this year.

Educators in the Kansas City area interested in the program may contact Parrett or Education Consultant Ginger Miller by calling 816-759-7300. In northwest Missouri, interested parties may call MDC’s Northwest Regional Office at 816-271-3100. For more information about Discover Nature Schools, visit