ONALASKA, Wisconsin (WXOW) - Third graders at Sand Lake Elementary have a unique science classroom: The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge at Brice Prairie.
"Every child that I've brought out here thinks it's just a magical place," said Jodi Hoscheit, Sand Lake Elementary third grade teacher. "The kids get right down in [the prairie]. They find the small things that they wonder about. They get to see the eagles soaring over the air. Our last trip when we were gathering seed, we had a whole flock of sandhill cranes fly over us. They're still writing about that experience today. It's almost a month ago."
Unlike traditional classroom learning, students visiting the refuge use all of their senses to experience the world around them. Students can learn about a variety of environmental topics through interactive exhibits at the new visitor's center, and by gathering first hand experiences across the prairie's extensive landscape.
Paula Ogden-Muse, Visitor Services Manager for the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, said the location provides an instinctive and spontaneous learning environment for students.
"I stepped outside the door," said Ogen-Muse. "And am making sure all the students had their hats and their gloves on and their backpacks and everything. And I was talking to them. But man! They saw that grasshopper and I was irrelevant! And that is what I love. ‘Cause I knew there's no way I can compete with that grasshopper and that daddy-longlegs. That's where the learning is. And, just let them go."
Outside, a group of third graders look for clues to figure out what kind of animals live in the prairie. They listen intently as a naturalist discusses a bird's nest a student found.
Inside, students dash between exhibits pointing enthusiastically at migratory birds mounted on the ceiling.
"Hands-on, minds-on," said Ogden-Muse. "I mean, listen to what's going on behinds us! They're not just answering those questions. They're looking at things. They're wondering about things. And it's launching them into a whole different world."
Sand Lake Elementary third graders will be visiting the National Wildlife and Fish Refuge at least once a month through June 2013. In January, they will be spreading seeds to help with the ongoing prairie restoration project. The students will be studying a variety of topics at the refuge that will be integrated into their everyday curriculum.
"It leaves a lasting impression. It is an emotional experience, the kids have wonder and excitement from what they're learning and involved in. That helps them to always remember it. It's way more memorable than an afternoon spent with a science text book."
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