Kansas – A Rich Heritage of Environmental Education

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Photo by Brad Guhr.

The prairie is central to our environmental education in Kansas (Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, KS).

It is Earth Partnership for Schools (EPS) summer institute time again at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. For the 10th year in a row, we are hosting teachers from around South Central Kansas for a week to learn about, plan, practice, and celebrate the environmental education process of teaching students about natural and cultural history of the native Kansas prairie. This year’s EPS summer institute with its 33 teachers (our largest group ever), 482 years of collective teaching experience, and ample enthusiasm for providing prairie project-based, hands-on education for their students provides the perfect setting to be thinking about environmental education in Kansas.

I have taken a bit of time to inventory, categorize, and provide a brief description of the vast array of environmental education resources in Kansas. It turns out to be a pretty rich heritage indeed.

State-Sponsored

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Our state-funded conservation entity Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism has a focus on just those things. They promote hunting, fishing, and camping opportunities throughout the state and connecting people with outdoors Kansas. Their long-running Outdoor Wildlife Laboratory Sites (OWLS) Program is a great promoter of establishing native wildlife habitat on school grounds.

Museums and Zoos

Exploration Place – This was a favorite end-of-summer destination for my boys when they were younger. They were first attracted to thExplorationPlacee blocks, climbing/play areas, and model train set, but eventually became hooked on the hands-on exhibits featuring wind currents, stream morphology, weather, and geology. The most memorable visit was when retrieving an errant mini golf shot led to three hours of getting wet and sandy in the Arkansas River under the watchful eye of the Keeper of the Plains.

Flint Hills Discovery Center – One of the newer facilities in Kansas that not only wonderfully interprets the natural and cFlintHillsDiscoveryCenterultural history of the Kansas Flint Hills Prairie, but it is also an architectural and landscaping gem.

Kauffman MusKMlogo-croppedeum – A Museum of Mennonite Immigration and History in Kansas. They interpret the natural Kansas setting encountered in the 1870s, have a collection of wildlife in taxidermy, and the surrounding outdoor landscape features one of the oldest reconstructed prairies in Kansas. A good destination for school field trips and summer educational programming for youth.

The University of Kansas Natural History Museum & Biodiversity Research Center – For more than 140 years, scientists and students have collected and studied liKansas+Biological+Survey+official+logofe on Earth. The museum has more than 8 million specimens of plants and animals, including prehistoric and living species gathered from every continent and ocean.

Sternberg Museum of Natural HistoryMuseum feaSternbergtures include a replicated fossil dig site & a discovery room with hands-on activities. While I have not been there, I understand it features a great collection of marine and flying reptiles and fish fossils from the Cretaceous Era.

Sedgwick County Zoo – Accredited wildlife park and major attraction in Wichita that has become recognized both nationally and internatilogoonally for its support of conservation programs and successful breeding of rare and endangered species. Having over 2,500 animals of nearly 500 different species, this zoo ranks as the number one outdoor tourist attraction in Kansas. They also do a nice job of interpreting the native fauna of Kansas.

Sunset Zoo – City zoo of PathManhattan is home to over 300 animals representing more than 100 mediaview.aspxspecies.

Tanganyika Wildlife ParkFamily-friendly destination in Goddard where parkgoers have up-close, hands-on interaction with the animals.

Environmental Education /Nature Centers/Botanical Gardens/Arboreta

Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Educatiokacee logo cleann (KACEE) – A statewide non-profit association of many public and private agencies, organizations, businesses and individuals promoting and providing quality, non-biased and science-based environmental education in Kansas for 45 years.

Chaplin Nature CenterA 230-acre nature preserve chaplin_entryv2with four miles of hiking trails and environmental education for all ages along the Arkansas River near Arkansas City.

Dillon Nature Center – 100-acre park/arboretum with a pond opened in HutchinsonDillonNatureCenter in 1994. The visitor center includes a nature display gallery with dioramas, interactive exhibits and live reptiles, amphibians and fish.

Great Plains Nature Center – Experience 240-acre Chisholm Creek Park via 2 miles of accessible trails through wGPNClogoetlands, prairie, and riparian habitats. The visitor center has dioramas that feature Great Plains ecosystems including their plants and wildlife.

Konza Environmental Education PrKEEPogram – 8,600 acres of rolling hills marked with flint and limestone dominate the landscapes around Manhattan KS. The Kansas State University Biology Department conducts prairie research here and The Nature Conservancy owns the land. Trained docents will lead your group in an activity that highlights the biology, geology, ecology, and history of the tallgrass prairie.

Botanica – The Gardens are decorated with a collection of botanica20 elegant sculptures, flowing streams, fountains and waterfalls that complement the beauty of plants and that create a visually stunning atmosphere. Facility rentals as well as educational, artistic, and cultural experiences are plentiful.

Bartlett Arboretum – This 105 year-old botanical gem features state champioBartlettn trees, picturesque views of waterways, bridge and pergola architecture, a quaint location for an outdoor wedding, art classes, a tulip festival and an outdoor concert series.

Dyck Arboretum of the Plains – 28 acres established in 1981 in Hesston featuring hundreds of species of native and adaptable wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees. Whether planted with Printhorticultural intention or as prairie-based ecosystems, Kansas native plants are promoted here in ways pleasing to both people and pollinators. Pay a visit if you are looking for scenic facility rentals, recreation, environmental landscaping, ecological restoration, Great Plains seminars, environmental education for teachers, and an acoustic music concert series.

Conservation/Specialized Educationkansas-audubon-icon

Audubon of Kansas – Promotes appreciation and stewardship of ecosystems in Kansas and the heartland, with emphasis on conservation of birds, wildlife, prairies and other habitats.

Kansas Land Trust – By crafting customized conservindexation agreements with landowners, KLT helps permanently protect Kansas lands of ecological or agricultural importance and of historic, scenic, and recreational merit.

The Nature Conservancy of Kansas – The leading logo-nature-notaglineconservation organization working to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. Areas of current focus in Kansas include the Flint Hills, Red Hills, Osage Cuestas and Cheyenne Bkhslogo2v2ottoms.

Kansas Herpetological Society – Encourages conservation, scholarship, research, cooperation, and dissemination of scientific information regarding the herpetofauna of Kansas.

Kansas Native Plant Society – Encourages awarenessKNPSdecal and appreciation of the native plants of Kansas in their habitats and in our landscapes by promoting education, stewardship, and scientific knowledge.

Kansas Ornithological Society – A statewide organization devoted specifically to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds. kos_larkCollectively, the KOS has unrivaled knowledge about the status, distribution, ecology, and identification of the state’s avifauna.

 

 

 

Research

Kansas Biological Survey – A University of Kansas research center of natural sciences research, environmentaKansas+Biological+Survey+official+logol mapping, conservation and education. Scientists work with graduate and undergraduate students, as well as visiting scholars on research covering water, air and soil quality; land use; threatened and endangered species; global change biology; environmental engineering; and aquatic ecology and watersheds.

Teacher Groups

Kansas Association of Teachers of Science (New Picture (19)KATS) – KATS shares ideas and techniques for teaching science education to Kansas students.

Kansas Association of Biology Teachers (KABT) – CKABTBanner2016v2urrent and former educators interested in advancing the practice of science teaching within and beyond the borders of the state of Kansas.

 

Natural Areas

Natural areas rich with flora and fauna can be found around the state featuring prairie and wetland ecosystems. In southwestern Kansas, the Cimmaron National Grassland features shortgrass prairie. Tallgrass prairie is featured in the Flint Hills at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Maxwell Wildlife Refuge features Smoky Hills mixedgrass prairie and herds of bison and elk. Marshes critically important in the Great Plains Flyway include the rare inland salt marshes at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms, the largest interior marsh in the United States.

Now get out there and find and engage with these great environmental education resources in Kansas!

The Power of Many

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” ~ Helen Keller

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Consider the power of one vs. the power of many. The power of one may at first seem insignificant. However, with persistence, consensus-building, and sometimes even a little luck, that power can grow to many and build to a formidable presence.

A few examples of this in nature…

From one seed, a typical annual sunflower head produces hundreds and sometimes over 1,000 seeds depending on the species variety. A few plants in an area with open soil can quickly turn into an area dominated by this species over the next couple of years.

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One Canada goose only has so much energy to give while covering miles during migration to fight wind currents and arrive at its intended destination. But by flocking into a V formation in flight, each individual rotates through the more energy-intensive front position in a cyclical fashion, shares overall flight fatigue, and greatly boosts the efficiency and range of the whole.

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Photo by Hamid Hajihusseini – http://www.panoramio.com/photo/43585282

One by one, individual plants of hundreds of species of wildflowers and grasses took advantage of a favorable climate on the Great Plains after the last ice age 10,000 years ago. They extended their roots to a depth of 10 feet or more, produced flowers and distributed seeds, and filled new spaces as long-lived perennials. Prairie plant roots partially died and regenerated year after year after year, and in the process pumped loads of atmospheric carbon into a deep soil horizon, and created a long-lasting friable matrix that today helps produce food for the rest of the world.51EQ78HN2YL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

While pondering these examples on a walk this morning, I tried to swat individual mosquitoes, only to be overwhelmed by the presence of a blood-thirsty mosquito CLOUD. I was reminded of the “success of many” concept in the book Gnats of Knotty Pine from my favorite children’s author, Bill Peet.

Last week, we finished our ninth annual Earth Partnership for Schools (EPS) summer institute. We were joined by 21 educators for this intense 40-hour workshop to learn how to engage K-12 children in the preparation, creation, maintenance, study and enjoyment of schoolyard prairie gardens. These individuals came with energy, passion, a willingness to learn, and 287 years of experience and expertise. (side note: this group fittingly helped a volunteer weed a large bed in about five minutes and conducted a big planting in about 30 minutes that would have taken our grounds manager all day!)

As during previous EPS summer institutes, spending a week with these people was a blast – exhausting, yet energizing, and ever so powerful for all involved on so many levels. They will return to school in the fall with detailed action plans, an expanded toolbox of curriculum activities, and a new appreciation for the success of project-based, hands-on environmental education.

I’m sure you will agree that every individual teacher has the power on his or her own to impact the lives of so many young people.  Together, this 2015 cohort has increased the number of EPS educators in Kansas to 194 teachers from 64 schools. These individuals, as a collective group, have reached over 21,000 students in the last eight years and that number will continue to grow.

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I’ll leave you with one final question. Between the bison and the grasshopper (pre-European settlement era when the bison were still common), which organism as a whole consumed more prairie biomass in a given year? I think you know where this is going…

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