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Natural mentors

Middle school students get bird's eye view of environment

November 23, 2011

In middle school, everyone could use a buddy.

But what about a birding buddy?

Nature-loving students at Madison's Sherman Middle School now have both, thanks to an ongoing collaboration with the Nelson Institute. Undergraduate environmental studies students are paired one-on-one with Sherman sixth, seventh or eighth graders for a semester - their "bird buddies" - through the service learning capstone course "Birding to Change the World."

Nelson Institute-Sherman Middle School birding club
UW-Madison students serve as teachers, mentors
and friends to their Sherman counterparts.

The UW-Madison students serve as teachers, mentors and friends to their Sherman counterparts during weekly visits to the school, helping them develop academic and social skills while building an appreciation of the natural resources in nearby Warner Park.

The park's 200 acres are home to a diverse range of ecosystems, making it an ideal location to explore and study. With field notebooks and binoculars in hand, the group ventures through the park each week for about an hour, watching for birds and other wildlife and recording their observations. The environmental studies undergrads also meet separately once a week to study ornithology and bird identification.

The class is taught by Jack Kloppenburg, a professor of community and environmental sociology and environmental studies, and Trish O'Kane, a doctoral candidate in the Nelson Institute's Environment and Resources program.

High marks

The bird watching club has drawn the adoration of students, the gratitude of Sherman Middle School and the attention of local media.

"So many kids, especially kids in the city, are growing up with absolutely no knowledge of nature or the joy of being outdoors in a natural setting," O'Kane told The Capital Times for a profile of the course in April. "Being with these students as they experience a little wilderness in their own backyard is a delight."

"This grabs kids
that weren't
typically engaged
in after-school
programs and they
work toward it.
This has affected
many students."

Sherman Middle School principal Michael Hernandez echoes this sentiment.

"A lot of these kids live in this neighborhood and they've never walked that area; they've never noticed things [in the park]," he says. "Whereas now, we've seen some of these students step up into leadership roles - step up and say, 'Hey, I know about that,' or 'I've seen this.' It's been a very fulfilling opportunity for students."

Hernandez uses words like "powerful" and "amazing" to describe the partnership and its effect on students as he shares anecdotes from the spring semester, the second time the course was offered. One student, disconnected from school following the death of his parents, became so engaged with the class that, by the end of the semester, he was frequently rattling off bird facts. Another student's mother reported to Hernandez that the highlight of his year was receiving binoculars in class - binoculars that the boy brought to school every day.

"You know, science unfortunately is not a hot topic for middle school kids, but this is something - nature - that has generated interest," Hernandez says. "This grabs kids that weren't typically engaged in after-school programs and they work toward it. This has affected many students."

Hernandez says the individualized attention and mentoring from college students has opened the children's eyes to the possibility of attending college.

"Sometimes college seems so far removed for some of these students," he says, but "seeing that the UW across the lake is not that far from their reach, now we have kids that are talking about 'I want to do this.'"

Glee club

This spring semester, the birding club conducted the first-ever survey of birds in the park, identifying 100 species that ranged from the sandhill crane to the northern shoveler.

"The pride of them finding the 100 birds was amazing," Hernandez says. The class approached the project with such gusto that a few of the students even showed up at O'Kane's doorstep one weekend to report on new species they'd just spotted in the park.

Ornithologist John Robinson
Renowned ornithologist John Robinson visited
the class in April, helping students identify two bird
species they hadn't previously seen in the park.

O'Kane has noticed that the children's enthusiasm is infectious.

"Often the college students rediscover their own love of nature through their bird buddy's joy and excitement," she says.

Sherman sixth grader and birding club participant Boaz Fink can quickly name his favorite bird: the red-tailed hawk, he says, pointing to a tree in the park where he often sees them.

"When they're flying, their wingspan is huge," he continues with zeal. "I really like watching birds of prey, mainly because of their size. Just seeing a bird like the red-tailed hawk is a really cool sight."

This excitement for the outdoors is what nationally renowned ornithologist John Robinson is hoping to inspire in youth and adults. He is on a mission to get people of every background more engaged with birds and with conservation - the subject of his most recent book, Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers.

Bird calling

Robinson visited Sherman Middle School in April, joining students on their bird walk and helping them identify two species they hadn't previously seen in the park: the yellow-bellied sapsucker (a woodpecker) and the lesser scaup (a diving duck). See a video from Robinson's visit.

Child bird watching
Students identified 100 species in the first-ever
survey of birds in Warner Park. Credit Jim Carrier.

"Just being able to spend some time with these kids is all that it takes," Robinson says, recounting an experience from sixth grade, when a teacher shared with him Jack London's The Call of the Wild.

"It was that one chance encounter - 120 seconds, two minutes - that really changed my life," he adds. The book immediately drew Robinson in, spurring his interest in the outdoors and his dream of becoming a biologist.

Capstone class member Danielle Dovnik, a senior majoring in community and environmental sociology (now graduated), was glad for Robinson's visit.

"John Robinson is a role model who has taken his love of nature all the way in terms of turning it into a career," she says. "Personally, when I was a kid, I didn't know that you could have a job outside, enjoying nature, learning about things ... To be able to show that to kids firsthand - if they really do enjoy this, they could make a living out of it - I think that's a really good thing at this early age."

Home sweet home

For Dovnik, a highlight of the class was coordinating the installation of birdhouses throughout Warner Park. Dovnik had been brainstorming how to help Sherman students "make the park theirs," she says, when she saw a documentary about the use of birdhouses in the conservation of some songbird species.

"Often the college
students rediscover
their own love of
nature through
their bird buddy's
joy and excitement."

"I started thinking, maybe we can do this with the kids," she says. "If they get to have something tangible that they can go back and see, time and time again, and even maybe see a bird pair nesting in there and see the little chicks as they grow up and fledge, what better way to really get the kids involved?"

Dovnik received the approval of Kloppenburg, O'Kane and the Madison Parks Commission, consulted with the Madison Audubon Society to ensure the birdhouses were made in a safe and sustainable way, and then built the houses using recycled soup cans, scrap pieces of wood and segments of used wire coat hangers - a trash-to-treasure style, she says proudly.

Sherman students took it from there, decorating the houses with leaves, bark, sticks and pine cones they gathered from the park. They even got to choose where in the park they'd like the houses to be placed.

"I wanted to have them play as much of a role in this as possible," Dovnik says. "The whole goal was to have them really care about this special place and then maybe start caring for the park as a whole, and then nature."

Environmental studies student installs a birdhouse
Wanting to help Sherman students "make the park
theirs," class member Danielle Dovnik coordinated
the installation of student-decorated birdhouses.

After the birdhouses were installed, students "were so excited to see that they had their birdhouse in the spot that they wanted, decorated with whatever they wanted," she says. "It warms my heart to see that the kids are really starting to get a connection with the park."

The birdhouses will remain through fall, when birds are done nesting, then be removed and stored until spring, when future students can redecorate and re-install them.

The course is being offered again this fall and has been expanded both in size, with nearly triple the number of students participating, and in scope, to take a broader look at the natural world (the course is now called "Last Child in the Park: How Kids and Birds Can Save the Planet").

With word of the class spreading, Hernandez says parents of incoming Sherman students routinely inquire about how to get their children enrolled in the program.

"I really do hope that we're able to maintain this partnership," he says. "It enriches our kids, giving them another opportunity in which they can be introduced to science and to nature."