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Nova Scotia expedition: Bemidji teachers survey mammals

Bemidji High School teacher Kris VanWilgen-Hammit loads a small mammal trap with hay and grain and puts the tunnel on the front during a two-week Earthwatch expedition in April in Nova Scotia. The expedition was called "Mammals of Nova Scotia." Submitted Photo

From Nova Scotia's ocean-lined coast to its lake-dotted, wooded interior, two Bemidji teachers surveyed mammals in the Canadian province.

Kurt Long Voelkner and Kris VanWilgen-Hammit traveled in April to the South Shore region of Nova Scotia for a two-week Earthwatch expedition called "Mammals of Nova Scotia."

Long Voelkner teaches eighth-grade earth science at Bemidji Middle School and VanWilgen-Hammit teaches environmental science and biology at Bemidji High School.

The Bemidji teachers were among 10 teachers selected from across the United States to receive a Wells Fargo Earthwatch fellowship to participate in the expedition.

The teachers joined scientists Christina Buesching and Chris Newman from Oxford University in Oxford, England.

The team conducted hands-on research to explore how the animals that live in the region's ecosystem - from deer to voles - cope with the impacts of climate change, according to an Earthwatch press release.

The research, Long Voelkner said, ranged from trapping and releasing small mammals to making observations of animal tracks and droppings.

While in Nova Scotia, he and VanWilgen-Hammit connected with students in their classes and other classes back in Bemidji through online video calls, blogs and e-mail.

"They had a lot of interest," Long Voelkner said.

He said he felt the experience validated what teachers teach and what students are learning in the classroom.

Just before the expedition, VanWilgen-Hammit said, her environmental science classes finished their population unit.

"I couldn't have planned that better," she said.

Through her experiences on the expedition, VanWilgen-Hammit said students realized that the work they do in the classroom applies to real life.

Also during the expedition, the 10 participating teachers learned from one another.

Long Voelkner said one of the highlights of the expedition was being able to learn from and share experiences with the other teachers.

VanWilgen-Hammit, who encourages students to travel and experience new places, said one of her highlights of the expedition was having the chance to give her students a glimpse of another place.

Besides the expedition, the fellowships also provide $200 for each teacher to develop a community project to address a local environmental issue.

For his project, Long Voelkner said he wants to set up a webcam of an osprey nest on the Bemidji Middle School property. He said he wants to involve students, if possible, in Web site development and maintenance as well as in conducting research.

VanWilgen-Hammit said she plans to involve students in a wildlife survey in the Bemidji High School forest, much like the research she and Long Voelkner did in Nova Scotia.