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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

February 2000

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When the community is the classroom

In city neighborhoods and rural townships alike, students and teachers are leaving their blackboards and desks behind to let learning grow outdoors.

Al Stensrup

Beyond school walls
Lake Holcombe High School FFA tackles purple loosestrife
Sheboygan River Consortium tests the waters
Hawley Road Environmental School gives Milwaukee a helping hand
Butler Middle School investigates mercury
Eau Claire students go wild over bear
Table of Contents | How to order printed copies

Beyond school walls

Today, teachers are moving away from textbook-driven, teacher-led instruction to more hands-on approaches that involve students in their own learning. Rather than reading about research, students are conducting it.

Teaching from the source. Classroom move outdoors to bring students closer to nature.
© DNR Photo
Teaching from the source. Classrooms move outdoors to bring students closer to nature. © DNR Photo

The Department of Natural Resources provides resource materials and training on a variety of topics. Come meet several schools that are actively
involved in community environmental projects.

Lake Holcombe High School FFA tackles purple loosestrife

In the early 90's, purple loosestrife, an exotic plant that displaces native wetland species and degrades wildlife habitat, reached epidemic populations on the north end of Lake Holcombe in Chippewa and Rusk counties. The Lake Holcombe High School Future Farmers of America (FFA) took on the challenge of trying to control its spread.

Table of Contents
Learning to grow

Environmental education centers

Computer tools for educators

Monitoring the environment

Adult and community education

Education and economics

Outreach programs for teachers


"The FFA, aid the Lake Holcombe Improvement Association, started pulling 50 pickup loads a year of purple loosestrife plants," says FFA member Julie Smith. This type of cultural control is effective with very small populations, but something else was needed to attack the large areas of loosestrife along the shore.

FFA Advisor Brian Guthman, in cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources, started a biological control project using an imported European beetle that eats loosestrife. To raise enough beetles for the project, the FFA group started with 25 loosestrife plants, placing 10 beetles on each. Soon the beetle population grew to more than 1,500 per plant. The FFA released the insects at strategic sites to eat away at the purple loosestrife. Several study areas are being monitored and it appears the beetles are very effective.

The FFA is educating other groups about the program, and recently conducted a training session at the Wisconsin Lakes Association Convention. The Lake Holcombe FFA received the Wisconsin Adopt-A-Lake Award for its work on control of purple loosestrife, water quality testing, and the construction and installation of more than 300 fish cribs.

Purple loosestrife biological control
Purple loosestrife, first introduced in the United States as a garden perennial in the 1800s, is now widely dispersed throughout Wisconsin. Department of Natural Resources is seeking groups to rear, release and monitor leaf-feeding beetles to reduce purple loosestrife populations. Teaching materials are available for schools and educators. Contact Brock Woods at (608) 221-6349.

Sheboygan River Consortium tests the waters

Students from Horace Mann Middle School, Kohler High School, Sheboygan Falls Middle School, Sheboygan South High School and Plymouth High School are coming together to study the Sheboygan River and its tributaries. Several times a week, students from each school test the river water at designated sites. Students and teachers are trained each fall. In spring, the students bring their results and suggestions to improve water quality to a Student Congress. Local decision-makers, parents, and the general public are invited to attend.

"The project is appealing to students because the assignment analyzes a real-world problem," said Brian Henriksen, a teacher at Sheboygan South and coordinator of the project. "You do the research yourself at a place you see every day," said Noemi Moralez, a Sheboygan South senior. "It makes you want to go out and find a solution for that problem."

Hawley Road Environmental School gives Milwaukee a helping hand

What do the Doyne Landfill Site Study, Jacobus Park Pond, the Menomonee River and the Henry Aaron Wetland Park have in common? All involved elementary students from Hawley Environmental School.

Take the first step
"Taking Action!" contains more than 50 pages of ideas and ways you, your school or organization can become involved in finding solutions to environmental problems. To request a copy, e-mail Betty Prescott at or call (608) 264-6280.

The students recently worked with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to plant over 500 native flowers in the Henry Aaron Wetland Park. The school will be the caretaker of the site. "When they become involved, students see a purpose for studying," said Robert Helminiak, principal. "And with a hands-on project, the students their see progress and see how they helped."

The students and staff also added prairie and butterfly gardens to their school site in raised beds next to the sidewalk and parking area. This year the second graders and their families will travel to the Tomah area to study wolves. "We want parents to share in this experience with their children," said Estelle Vollmer, environmental educator at the school.

Butler Middle School investigates mercury

Oconomowoc Lake is the only body of water in Waukesha County that has a fish advisory. The advisory suggests who should limit or avoid eating northern pike that are 18-26" in size. Teachers at Butler Middle School used this advisory as a springboard for a teaching unit on mercury after attending a training session conducted by the Pollution Prevention Partnership and the Department of Natural Resources. Students went into their community, looked for possible sources of mercury, and interviewed local business people, members of the dental and medical fields, and local area builders. The students returned to the classroom, role-played those professions and then proposed solutions to reduce the amount of mercury in the community.

Eau Claire students go wild over bear

Orphaned or injured bear cubs are brought to the MacKenzie Environmental Center to a special cub enclosure that provides plenty of cover and little visual contact with humans.

The cubs naturally begin hibernating when the weather cools and daylight and food supplies diminish. In the spring, once the vegetation begins to green up, the cubs are awakened, sedated, and transported to remote locations in central Wisconsin. The same students track and document the behavior of the cubs until they again hibernate the following fall.

Eau Claire students get their bearings with guidance from DNR wildlife manager MIke Gappa. © Courtesy Mike Gappa
Eau Claire students get their bearings with guidance from DNR wildlife manager MIke Gappa. © Courtesy Mike Gappa

High school students from the Eau Claire area assist a DNR biologist in administering a mild sedative to the cubs, drawing blood, taking measurements, and fitting the cubs with radio collars before they are released.

Another mild sedative is then given, the radio collars are removed, measurements taken, and the young bears are truly on their own. In similar projects, other schools are using their computers to track the movements of deer and Blanding's turtles equipped with radio transmitters.

Al Stenstrup is a DNR education outreach specialist.

To order printed copies of "Learning to grow" send an email message to Carrie Morgan with your name, address and number of copies desired.