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Natural mentors

Middle school students get bird's eye view of environment

November 23, 2011 | By Meghan Lepisto

In middle school, everyone could use a buddy.

But what about a birding buddy?

Nature-loving students at Madison's Sherman Middle School now have both, thanks to an ongoing collaboration with the Nelson Institute. Undergraduate environmental studies students are paired one-on-one with Sherman sixth, seventh or eighth graders for a semester - their "bird buddies" - through the service learning capstone course "Birding to Change the World."

Nelson Institute-Sherman Middle School birding club
UW-Madison students serve as teachers, mentors
and friends to their Sherman counterparts.

The UW-Madison students serve as teachers, mentors and friends to their Sherman counterparts during weekly visits to the school, helping them develop academic and social skills while building an appreciation of the natural resources in nearby Warner Park.

The park's 200 acres are home to a diverse range of ecosystems, making it an ideal location to explore and study. With field notebooks and binoculars in hand, the group ventures through the park each week for about an hour, watching for birds and other wildlife and recording their observations. The environmental studies undergrads also meet separately once a week to study ornithology and bird identification.

The class is taught by Jack Kloppenburg, a professor of community and environmental sociology and environmental studies, and Trish O'Kane, a doctoral candidate in the Nelson Institute's Environment and Resources program.

High marks

The bird watching club has drawn the adoration of students, the gratitude of Sherman Middle School and the attention of local media.

"So many kids, especially kids in the city, are growing up with absolutely no knowledge of nature or the joy of being outdoors in a natural setting," O'Kane told The Capital Times for a profile of the course in April. "Being with these students as they experience a little wilderness in their own backyard is a delight."

"This grabs kids
that weren't
typically engaged
in after-school
programs and they
work toward it.
This has affected
many students."

Sherman Middle School principal Michael Hernandez echoes this sentiment.

"A lot of these kids live in this neighborhood and they've never walked that area; they've never noticed things [in the park]," he says. "Whereas now, we've seen some of these students step up into leadership roles - step up and say, 'Hey, I know about that,' or 'I've seen this.' It's been a very fulfilling opportunity for students."

Hernandez uses words like "powerful" and "amazing" to describe the partnership and its effect on students as he shares anecdotes from the spring semester, the second time the course was offered. One student, disconnected from school following the death of his parents, became so engaged with the class that, by the end of the semester, he was frequently rattling off bird facts. Another student's mother reported to Hernandez that the highlight of his year was receiving binoculars in class - binoculars that the boy brought to school every day.

"You know, science unfortunately is not a hot topic for middle school kids, but this is something - nature - that has generated interest," Hernandez says. "This grabs kids that weren't typically engaged in after-school programs and they work toward it. This has affected many students."

Hernandez says the individualized attention and mentoring from college students has opened the children's eyes to the possibility of attending college.

"Sometimes college seems so far removed for some of these students," he says, but "seeing that the UW across the lake is not that far from their reach, now we have kids that are talking about 'I want to do this.'"

Glee club

This spring semester, the birding club conducted the first-ever survey of birds in the park, identifying 100 species that ranged from the sandhill crane to the northern shoveler.

"The pride of them finding the 100 birds was amazing," Hernandez says. The class approached the project with such gusto that a few of the students even showed up at O'Kane's doorstep one weekend to report on new species they'd just spotted in the park.

Ornithologist John Robinson
Renowned ornithologist John Robinson visited
the class in April, helping students identify two bird
species they hadn't previously seen in the park.

O'Kane has noticed that the children's enthusiasm is infectious.

"Often the college students rediscover their own love of nature through their bird buddy's joy and excitement," she says.

Sherman sixth grader and birding club participant Boaz Fink can quickly name his favorite bird: the red-tailed hawk, he says, pointing to a tree in the park where he often sees them.

"When they're flying, their wingspan is huge," he continues with zeal. "I really like watching birds of prey, mainly because of their size. Just seeing a bird like the red-tailed hawk is a really cool sight."

This excitement for the outdoors is what nationally renowned ornithologist John Robinson is hoping to inspire in youth and adults. He is on a mission to get people of every background more engaged with birds and with conservation - the subject of his most recent book, Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers.

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