It was a sunny cold day when Shannon Ramsay of the Algoma Highlands Conservancy’s Environmental Education introduced me to her work. From hiking in the summer to snowshoeing in the winter, there is always an adventure planned for the students of the Algoma District School Board (ADSB). Classes are funded by the ADSB, brought out to the conservation and given an outdoor connection while learning valuable curriculum.
The Algoma Highlands Conservancy first formed the program through a successful Ontario Trillium several years ago, and every year it continues to grow. In 2014, 41 classes visited throughout the school year. With an estimate of 24 students per visit, that would add to approximately 984 ADSB students visiting this outdoor classroom over the school year.
In June of 2014, the AHC was in the search for a facilitator for this Environmental Education program. Shannon, having a background in an outdoor-ed based school, came to learn of this one of a kind program through a mutual connection between her and the conservation. Having taught previously in the ADSB, and having previously worked with outdoor education curricula, the AHC had a feeling that Shannon would be a great match.
Algoma’s winters don’t phase this program. Shannon checks in with teachers to make sure everyone is dressed for the weather and classes still make their way out for their day of outdoor learning. She even has extra winter gear stocked for her program for the just-in-case scenarios.
Students arrive to a log day skier’s cabin out at Stokely Creek Lodge by 10:00 am and come inside to a lit fire and warmed classroom. Introductions then follow. They start with “What is AHC?” and education like “Leave No Trace”. Lead up activities such as discussing bird behavior and identification follow introductions. Samples of wood that has been affected by wood boring beetles, or logs with cavities in them that have been excavated by birds are brought in for analysis and discussion. She makes sure to tie it all in to the question:“What makes up a healthy forest eco-system?”.
Shannon believes it’s really important to draw out the student’s knowledge base first to see what they already know and find out what they want to further learn about. There is a quick lesson on snowshoes – looking at linking animal bodies to snowshoes. Shannon has a gift with teaching the natural elements and is able to take ecological facts and link them with experiential learning. Everyone straps on a pair of shoes and the class begins the outdoor component. They explore different areas along the creek, such as the riparian zone up into the highlands, and look for evidence of birds and other animals. Everything is tied to sustainable forestry and how these forests are so important.
In previous years, tree identification and animal track identification were the focus of learning in the program. Shannon notes that it is truly rewarding to see students that remember and come back building on the knowledge gained from past programming weaving it all into the new information being learned.
It is now lunch and the students return to the cabin. In the afternoon the students get to enjoy a field game that they have named Animal Survival. During their lunch the students learn first concepts of the game and how it will play out. They learned about how energy flows through an ecosystem. Things such as: producers, consumers, decomposers, herbi, omni, and carni-vores and their roles in an ecosystem. Everyone heads outside. Parts of the forest have been flagged off. The students take on the roles of specific animals and then are set ‘free” in woods. They required to look for food and water, all while avoiding being eaten, unless they are a carnivore. Then they are hunting. Adults/teachers take on roles of humans as hunters and healers. Disaster and disease are incorporated into the play. This game helps build an understanding of how food webs work and really brings it to life.
After a while of fun and play, the day draws to an end. It’s nearing 2:00 pm and it is time for everyone to head back to town. It can be a very physical day outdoors for the groups that come out. The students are filled to the brim with new knowledge, information, and are exhausted. Some have even been known to fall asleep on the bus back to school!
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