SAWYER — A tiny brown spring peeper frog was one of the stars of the show when the first Mighty Acorns group from Bridgman Elementary School explored Chikaming Open Lands’ Jens Jensen Preserve on Friday, Nov. 2.
The little hopper was discovered and studied by third-graders in consecutive classes searching the natural area near Sawyer during the fall field trip.
“So far we’ve had much success with the nature exploration finding our little tree frogs and some centipedes, somebody found a couple bees and managed to get them in their habitat,” said Jen Thompson, Development and Marketing Manager for Chikaming Open Lands (COL), adding that Nov. 2 wasn’t just the first Bridgman Elementary Mighty Acorns outing, it also was the first field trip held at Jens Jensen.
Bridgman Elementary third-grade teacher Barb Jewell brought her 22 pupils to the Jens Jensen Preserve in Sawyer on Nov. 2 (one of three classes to take part).
“This is our first time out, we’ve been very excited,” she said. “We have a beautiful day.”
Jewell said third-graders (along with fourth-graders who were slated to have their fall field trip on Nov. 9) will visit the COL preserve three times during the school year (the next two are scheduled for February and May).
“The kids have a pre-activity that we do at school. We learned about adaptation and how plants and animals survive in their environments by adapting.”
Jewell said teachers participated in a recent training session with COL Education and Outreach Coordinator Casey Struecker at the school and will do a follow-up lesson after the fall field trips.
“It’s all connected to our science standards for the State of Michigan,” she said.
In addition to the teacher training, Struecker said COL also sent a letter to parents explaining the Mighty Acorns program.
“We’ve already gotten great feedback from the teachers saying it’s been a lot of fun,” Struecker said.
Bridgman is the third local district to participate in the Mighty Acorns program. Fall field trips for students in the third through fifth grades at River Valley and New Buffalo elementary schools also have taken place this year.
Mighty Acorns engages students and teachers in field studies and hands-on learning opportunities created by The Nature Conservancy and is now run out of the Science in Action Center at the Field Museum in Chicago. It consists of both in-class work and field trips to local natural areas (Local field trips are led by Chikaming Open Lands personnel).
Elementary school teachers handle the classroom work, with a teacher kit including a curriculum guide, flash cards, handouts and more provided by the Field Museum.
Each participant has a Nature Exploration Backpack (supplied through a grant from the Harbor Country Rotary Club for River Valley and New Buffalo, and the Lakeshore Rotary Club for Bridgman Elementary) filled with magnifying glasses, bug boxes, field guides, notebooks, portable habitats and those monoculars.
Students divide into three groups which rotate between exploration, stewardship and a fun game designed to impart knowledge about the natural world.
Struecker led a “Who has a Better Beak” game on Nov. 2 that teaches about the beaks birds use to eat various types of food.
The game consisted of stations providing practical methods of replicating how different birds consume everything from mice to seeds using their specially adapted beaks.
“These bird beaks that we’re going to see help them to eat what is in their habitat,” she said.
At the conclusion of one session, Struecker asked some of the third-graders what their favorite food was (responses included spaghetti and meatballs, chicken nuggets, and marshmallows), and what kind of beak would be best for eating it.
The other two Mighty Acorns activities at Jens Jensen Preserve involved up-close exploration of the woodland and its wildlife, and stewardship activities during which students and their chaperones — parents, teachers and members of the Lakeshore Rotary Club — cleared the trail of sticks and leaves in the wake of a recent windstorm using rakes and loppers (“a tool, not a toy”).
“Today we are going to be working on the trails. After the wind storm we had a couple of weeks ago there are a lot of dead branches,” said COL Executive Director Ryan Postema, who led the Stewardship portion of the field trip.
Thompson said making multiple trips to the preserve allows students to see how the land changes from season to season and the impact stewardship activities can have.
Struecker said since this was the first time the Jen Jensen Preserve had been explored by Mighty Acorns pupils for its wildlife, “it will be interesting and helpful for us to know what lives out here.”
Thompson said “a ton of parents” volunteered to help during the Nov. 2 field trip.
Struecker said all those volunteers were helpful because the 60-plus students from Bridgman Elementary was their biggest yet.
“I think it’s a really cool experience for the kids,” said one of those parent volunteers, Brittany Withers.
“It helps the parents to be familiar with this preserve so they can bring their kids back. I heard a lot of them saying they didn’t know this was here,” Jewell said.
This is the third school year that River Valley has participated in the program, with field trips taking place at Robinson Woods Preserve (and sometimes also at the adjacent Flynn Woods Preserve).
New Buffalo is beginning its second year of Mighty Acorns, with outdoor excursions held right behind the school in the Turtle Creek Preserve and district-owned woodlands and open spaces.
Struecker said she had two solid weeks of Mighty Acorns fall field trips ahead of the two Bridgman outings.
“It’s the same program, but we’re getting to know the kids,” Thompson said, noting that this year’s River Valley fifth-graders are in their third year of Mighty Acorns.
Chikaming Open Lands is the local land conservancy for a nine-township area in Southern Berrien County and is dedicated to preserving the open spaces and the natural world character of the area.
This mission includes protecting plants and animals, water quality and to permanently preserve ecologically significant forests, prairies, wetlands, prime farmland and other open spaces. Thompson noted that landscapes containing high densities of native vegetation, environmental qualities and/or natural features are prevalent in the Chikaming-Three Oaks-New Buffalo area.