SAWYER — Chikaming Open Lands buys land and carves trails.
But it doesn’t walk away.
The preservation organization has education components. Among them a program called Mighty Acorns, which is paying off for Berrien County students and their teachers.
A tiny brown spring peeper frog starred when the first Mighty Acorns group from Bridgman Elementary School explored COL’s Jens Jensen Preserve in Chikaming Township this month.
The little hopper was discovered and studied by third-graders in consecutive classes searching the natural area near Sawyer.
“So far we’ve had much success with the nature exploration, finding our little tree frogs and some centipedes. Somebody found a couple bees and managed to get them in their habitat,” said Jen Thompson, COL’s development and marketing manager. She said the Bridgman group was the first to have a field trip at Jens Jensen.
“This is our first time out. We’ve been very excited,” third-grade teacher Barb Jewell said. “We have a beautiful day.”
Jewell said third-graders will visit the COL preserve three times during the school year. The next two are set for February and May.
Jewell said teachers participated in a recent training session with COL Education and Outreach Coordinator Casey Struecker at the school and will do a follow-up lessons after the fall field trip.
“It’s all connected to our science standards for the State of Michigan,” she said.
In addition to the teacher training, Struecker said COL sent letters to parents explaining the Mighty Acorns program.
“We’ve already gotten great feedback from the teachers saying it’s been a lot of fun,” Struecker said.
Bridgman is the third district to participate in Mighty Acorns. Fall field trips for students in the third through fifth grades at River Valley and New Buffalo elementary schools have taken place this year.
Mighty Acorns engages students and teachers in learning opportunities created by The Nature Conservancy and is run from the Science in Action Center at the Field Museum in Chicago. It consists of in-class work and field trips to local natural areas. Local field trips are led by Chikaming Open Lands personnel.
Elementary school teachers handle the classroom work with a teacher kit, including a curriculum guide, flash cards handouts and more provided by the Field Museum.
Each participant has a Nature Exploration Backpack – supplied through a grant from the Harbor Country Rotary Club for River Valley and New Buffalo and the Lakeshore Rotary Club for Bridgman Elementary. The packs are filled with magnifying glasses, bug boxes, field guides, notebooks, portable habitats and monoculars.
Students divide into three groups, which rotate between exploration, stewardship and a fun game designed to impart knowledge about the natural world.
Struecker led a “Who has a Better Beak” game that teaches about the beaks birds use to eat various types of food.
The game consisted of stations providing practical methods of replicating how different birds consume everything from mice to seeds using their specially adapted beaks.
“These bird beaks that we’re going to see help them to eat what is in their habitat,” she said.
At the conclusion of one session, Struecker asked some of the third-graders what their favorite food was. Responses included spaghetti and meatballs, chicken nuggets and marshmallows, and what kind of beak would be best for eating it.
The other two Mighty Acorns activities at Jens Jensen involved up-close exploration of the woodland and its wildlife, and stewardship activities during which students and their chaperones – parents, teachers and members of the Lakeshore Rotary Club – cleared the trail of sticks and leaves in the wake of a recent windstorm using rakes and loppers.
Thompson said making multiple trips to the preserve allows students to see how the land changes from season to season and the impact of stewardship activities.
Struecker said the Nov. 2 visit was the first in which the preserve had been explored by Mighty Acorns pupils for its wildlife.
“It will be interesting and helpful for us to know what lives out here,” she said.
Thompson said “a ton of parents” volunteered to help during the field trip.
Struecker said all those volunteers were helpful because the 60-plus students from Bridgman was COL’s largest yet.
Jewell, the teacher, said the field trip “helps the parents to be familiar with this preserve so they can bring their kids back. I heard a lot of them saying they didn’t know this was here.”
This is the third school year that River Valley has participated in the program, with field trips taking place at Robinson Woods Preserve and the adjacent Flynn Woods Preserve.
New Buffalo is beginning its second year of Mighty Acorns, with outdoor excursions right behind the school in the Turtle Creek Preserve and district-owned woodlands and open spaces.
Struecker said she had two solid weeks of Mighty Acorns fall field trips ahead of the two Bridgman outings.
“It’s the same program, but we’re getting to know the kids,” Thompson said, noting that this year’s River Valley fifth-graders are in their third year of Mighty Acorns.
Chikaming Open Lands is a land conservancy for a nine-township area in southern Berrien County and is dedicated to preserving the open spaces and the natural world character of the area. It owns 1,800 acres.
This mission includes protecting plants and animals, water quality and to permanently preserve ecologically significant forests, prairies, wetlands, prime farmland and other open spaces. Thompson noted that landscapes containing high densities of native vegetation, environmental qualities and/or natural features are prevalent in the Chikaming-Three Oaks-New Buffalo area.