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Learning in nature's classroom

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- Last year elementary students here learned science from a textbook. This year their teaching guide is all 300 acres of the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center.

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- Last year elementary students here learned science from a textbook. This year their teaching guide is all 300 acres of the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center.

"We're seeing science in a whole different world," fifth-grader Libby Otto said.

That's exactly what the Fergus Falls School District hoped to accomplish when it teamed up this year with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to give 50 fifth-graders a chance to spend three periods a day learning at the nearby wetlands.

There, nature is used to bring the standard curriculum -- science, math, health, English and technology -- to life.

"This is an opportunity to use a natural setting as a learning tool," said teacher Dave Ellis, the idea's originator. "There are so many real life problems to solve here, so many captivating questions that students are exposed to. It allows students to make connections better. The learning becomes more meaningful."

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Students are broken into groups of 25 and split their day between the center and school.

Ellis' teaching partner, Judy Kielb, teaches the kids social studies and other topics better suited for a traditional classroom setting.

The two split subjects like math.

Ellis, for instance, handles measurements. He plans to have students weigh a duck and measure its beak.

"We can take what we are doing in a curriculum and integrate it in the prairie and wetlands setting and use it to enhance what we want to teach," Ellis said.

On Wednesday, day two of the year-long program, the afternoon class of 25 students shuffled off the school bus and made a dash for a clump of nearby prairie grass.

There Ellis, clad in a buffalo suit, popped up holding a sign reading, "We're glad you're here."

Judging from the ear-to-ear smiles, the feeling was mutual.

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But this isn't school-sponsored playtime, Ellis said.

"We are not doing this as an experiment," he said. "We would not be doing this if we did not believe this was good for children and their education. Obviously they really like it, but will they learn? We believe that to be true."

Students are led to a classroom in the center's basement. There Ellis and Julie Athman of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begin teaching.

"What is a prairie?" is written on the chalkboard.

Students are given time to write. Later in the class they go outside for a more hands-on experience.

Eyes light up with Christmas-morning-like excitement when Ellis gives each student a handheld computer -- their journal for the year.

"This is so cool," said fifth- grader Devan Anderson. "My parents have handhelds. They won't even let me breathe on them."

The students are told how to use the machines and how they can download the information to their home computers.

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Ellis, who has 31 years of teaching experience, has been thinking about ways to integrate the wetlands into curriculum since the 1990s.

The idea picked up steam when Superintendent Mark Bezek came to the district three years ago.

The school was looking to do a better job of meeting the needs of its residents.

A survey was sent out to parents, who liked Ellis' idea. Bezek then worked with Ellis and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Center to develop the program.

Parents had to apply to get into the one-of-a-kind program. There is already a four-person waiting list.

Ellis knows the program will have detractors.

"There was some skepticism and I'm sure there still is," he said. "I think that once the community realizes what this program is and the quality is there, there will be more people that want it than we have space. And I see that problem coming for next year."

Ellis will be collecting data on how his students do compared to others that learn in traditional settings. Bezek and Ellis hope eventually to expand the program to other grades.

They'll have the support of the 50 students currently in the program.

"I like learning about nature, but we had to use books all these years," said fifth-grader Lizzie Link. "Now we just look out the window and we're there."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Baird at (701) 241-5535

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