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Bemidji Middle School: Exploring the great outdoors

Bemidji Middle School science teacher Mark Studer, center, explains to students in his class and with the Student Nature Area Project how to use chicken wire to protect young trees from beaver damage. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Adjacent to the main parking lot of the Bemidji Middle School, nature abounds.

In a few weeks, blackbirds will return to the cattails, beavers will eagerly forage for aspen clustered throughout the wetland and an osprey pair may choose to set up residence on the nesting platform.

Students in the Student Nature Area Project know this area well - the club has been helping to manage it for five years.

Uniquely situated on the school's 80 acres is a jack pine forest, wetlands and even a small arboretum of native trees. For seven years, these areas on the BMS campus have been managed through a collaboration of the Bemidji School District, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Beltrami Soil & Water Conservation District, as well as several other local environmental groups.

Kurt Long Voelkner, SNAP advisor and BMS science teacher, said he hopes these natural habitats will connect middle school students to nature and, hopefully, make them more aware of environmental issues affecting their area.

SNAP is one way students receive more outside learning time, Long Voelkner said. Students in SNAP, an afterschool outdoor activities club, participate in tree planting, wildlife and forestry management and ecosystem protection.

Last month, 10 SNAP students went on a winter camping trip. Currently, the group is building a floating board walk through a section of wetland on campus that will connect two trails while protecting the wetland from human disturbance (off-trail hiking).

"One of my goals is to have more classes come out here," Long Voelkner said. "I also want to get more kids outside."

BMS has two outdoor classrooms, which consist of trails and benches placed in certain natural habitats on campus. According to Long Voelkner, most of the classes that utilize them are science classes.

"I'd like to see more classes come out, like music and art," Long Voelkner said. "If we can catch kids while they're young, they are more likely to make better (environmentally-aware) decisions later on."

Long Voelkner said the students enjoy watching signs of wildlife on the school grounds, especially the osprey that nest on a platform built about seven years ago by officials from Beltrami Electric and the Minnesota DNR. He said students have also seen deer and grouse while exploring outside.

"I enjoy helping the environment," said BMS student Corbin Miller, who helped place chicken wire around young trees to protect them from beavers. "I like many of the activities we do."

With the completion of the boardwalk, SNAP students and those visiting the outdoor classrooms on campus will get a better look at the progression of natural occurrences in the wetland.

"The kids are really lucky to have this," Long Voelkner said. "My goal is to get kids interested and excited so that they get their teachers interested."

In the future, Long Voelkner would also like to write curriculum and lesson plans for teachers of all subjects that will make them feel more comfortable and willing to bring their classes outside.

"It's a beautiful place," he added.