Home Minnesota Educator Fergus Falls’ Prairie Science Class allows students to experience outdoor education in rare partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Fergus Falls’ Prairie Science Class allows students to experience outdoor education in rare partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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“All you need is a door” is the motto of the Prairie Science Class, a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center and Fergus Falls Public Schools.

Fergus Falls Prairie Science Class students follow a plants lifecycle, from seed to fully grown, thanks to a greenhouse donated by local nonprofits.

The class is an internationally-recognized partnership, which aims to use the Prairie Wetlands Ecosystem daily to engage fourth- and fifth-grade students in science, applied math, critical thinking, problem solving and writing through real world, field-based learning experiences.

The partnership and program were developed by a coalition of local citizens and educators and is taught by Fergus Falls teachers with support from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff. It is only one of two places in the country with type of partnership.

“Students call this a ‘whole new world of education’,’” said Mona Davis, a Prairie Science Class.

The more than 200 students who participate in the program spend half the day at the Prairie Science Class and half the day at Cleveland Elementary School. Teachers work together and split up the curriculum. Often, Prairie Science teachers work on science, reading, English language arts and art, while their partner teachers work on math, social studies, health and some reading as well.

“Our district really supports this and supports us,” said Davis. “We take our curriculum and standards, map it out and find where they fit in across a year. We find books that both match our curriculum and what we do out here.”

Each teacher at the Prairie Science Class teaches multiple sections. All fourth- and fifth-grade students are guaranteed a spot at Prairie for one year if they would like one.

“We go outside on a daily basis,” said Davis. “They use appropriate outdoor gear for any season. We have extra winter gear. We wrote three grants to recently get ski shoes and have water equipment.”

Students also have access to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff twice a month and have access to everything at the center, which is also open to other schools to visit in addition to the public.

“Students can find something out here that they are passionate about,” said Davis. “It may be poems, art, photography, some get into birds or just write constantly.”

Every day, students monitor the weather. They look at moon phases and the times of days. Whether it be in science, language arts or art, students are always journaling.

“I can get kids to write more here than anywhere else in my career,” said Davis, who taught for 16 years before moving to Prairie Learning Center.

Studies include weather patterns, plants and life cycles, nature’s process for animals – predators and prey. They go outside every day to talk about the wetlands, animals and plants. Teachers discuss migrating birds and get into what is in the water. There are three bluebird houses where students can see them have eggs and babies.

The Learning Center also includes a greenhouse, which was donated by nonprofits. In the greenhouse, students watch plants start at seeds and journal about their growth. They then see them planted outside and learn about the soil, life cycle and pollinators.

“We all knew this would be different,” said Davis. “It’s like nothing we studied in how to be a teacher, and I learn every day with the kids. But I was in my 16th year of teaching and something was missing. My son went through the program, and I just knew this was what I wanted to do.

“We think we need to have the answers, but this place has thought me that to ask questions more than have answers. There are many times I tell the students, ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ And that’s really powerful.”

The program is more than 20 years old and was the brainchild of a teacher named Dave Ellis.

“Even before this education center was here, he would come over here with his students,” said Davis. “He just had a feeling this would be good for kids.”

It took about 10 to 12 years for it to become what it is today.

“We have been told by middle and high school science and language arts teachers that they know which kids are Prairie Science kids,” said Davis.

We’re all curious, said Davis, and the benefit of the Prairie Science Class is you can let them explore.

“A lot of students talk about how this is a peaceful place for them,” she said.

At the end of the year, students write reflections on the program and celebrate the special place where they have had the opportunity to learn and grow.

Davis said the teachers at Prairie Science use a quote from Rachel Carlson, which says, “Every child needs the company of at least one adult who will share with them the mysteries and the wonders of the world we live in.”

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