By: Nick Buggia, Upper Midwestern States Manager
After a decade of serving on my local school board, I have developed a deep appreciation for the struggles facing school districts, especially those in smaller or rural communities. Between ever-changing state standards and funding issues, it can be a struggle to provide a variety of classes that appeal to students and meet the necessary curriculum requirements. However, outdoor education courses or curriculum provide a unique opportunity to equip students with interesting and practical information that offers lifelong benefits. From wildlife and fisheries biology and management to hunter safety to land stewardship, courses designed to incorporate outdoor skillsets provide a unique and interactive learning experience.
Outdoor education provides students an opportunity to gain familiarity with outdoor activities and fish and wildlife conservation. Many of these students may never have these opportunities outside the public education system. These courses also provide administrators flexibility because they can be offered as supplemental lessons to a class while others offer a more in-depth, semester-long curriculum. Whether students are hunters or anglers themselves, the goal is to provide young people with a better understanding of concepts like wildlife habitat needs, how invasive species affect native ecosystems, and why active wildlife management is often necessary for species to thrive. Such courses also provide an opportunity to highlight the importance of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, the American System of Conservation Funding, and the role that hunting, fishing and recreational shooting play in the conservation of our wildlife.
Outdoor education can be integrated into any class. For example, some schools offer dedicated agriculture and natural resources classes, and, depending on your state’s standards, these classes can count as an English, math, or science credit and expose students to the outdoors while earning credits necessary for education. Additionally, these classes could be valuable in our recruitment, retention, and reactivation (R3) efforts by serving as a gateway for new participants.
In many states, school districts partner with state natural resource agencies to successfully implement outdoor education programming or courses. For example, Kansas offers educational materials for preschoolers to adults on the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism website. Likewise, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources offers materials for educators, ranging from air quality to invasive species.
Here in Michigan, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offers valuable tools that teachers can use to help integrate outdoor education and natural resource management into their curriculum including wildlife identification activities, life history information for some of Michigan’s characteristic species, and inspiring stories about Michigan’s natural management successes. Additionally, the DNR helps coordinate enrichment programs like the National Archery in Schools Program that teaches archery in gym class. They even offer an additional program that teaches students the skills needed to successfully bow hunt.
On the fishing side, the DNR has a very successful and popular “Salmon in the Classroom” program, which gives students the opportunity to propagate and care for salmon right in their own classroom. Students receive eggs in the fall and follow the life cycle of salmon from hatching the eggs, rearing the smolts, to releasing the young fish in the spring. Throughout the process, students learn about the watershed habitat salmon live in, the Great Lakes ecosystem, the impacts invasive species have on salmon and other fish in the Great Lakes, salmon migration, food webs, and a variety of other topics related to salmon survival and sustainability.
In addition to these programs, the DNR recently built their Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC) in Downtown Detroit. The OAC offers opportunities for the general public and students to experience the natural wonders of Michigan without leaving Detroit by way of an archery range, hunting, fishing, and ATV simulators. Essentially, students can learn about everything from urban gardening to hunter’s safety.
Outdoor education provides opportunities for students to gain exposure to the outdoors, obtain required credits needed for graduation, assist in R3 efforts, and educate the public on the important role sportsmen and women play in fish and wildlife conservation. As sportsmen and women, we should be encouraging school districts to work with their state natural resource agencies and incorporate more outdoor education opportunities into their local school curriculums. These classes not only promote what we as sportsmen and women value, but also provide an opportunity to better educate the public on natural resource management and the potential to recruit the next generation of sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts.