A Forest Exploration Center charter school wouldn’t expect to begin holding regular classes in its own space, hoped to be in the Eschweiler Buildings, for another year, come September 2014.
The proposed school hasn’t even been chartered yet.
But you can’t hold some people back. It’s summer, the forest is out there in full, leafy canopy, and there’s much it can teach.
The FEC has already hired its first teacher, in fact, Allison Perry, a specialist in exploratory learning.
And so, the Forest Exploration School officially took to the woods this week with its inaugural program, the “Exploring Forests Summer Pilot Program.”
The learning started Monday morning with the first, simple question, “What is a forest?” Over just one week, 28 middle-school students, will see how far they can go from one youth’s first, straightforward answer – “A place where trees live” – to understanding that a forest is a dynamic community of many, many citizens, from the tallest tree down to uncountable microscopic organisms.
They are meeting many forest dwellers, including four birds of prey being presented by the Raptor Education Center. On nature walks with local experts, they are finding that forests are busy places, even when they seem silent and almost asleep.
The Summer Pilot students meet at Camp Wil-O-Way each morning, right next to what will become the future school’s principal outdoor classroom, the 67-acre DNR forest on the County Grounds.
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On Monday, after orientation, the students, who hail from 11 different schools in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa, embarked on – what else? – their first exploration of the woods. For a few urban kids, that alone was a first-time experience.
Led by FEC board president Tom Chapman, the class made its way across the forest with frequent stops along the way to examine finds and even to conduct their first scientific experiment.
Chapman works for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and has been its manager of the Menomonee River watershed since 1998, when repeated, severe flooding in Wauwatosa prompted the district and the city to collaborate on a flood management plan.
With his background is in water resources, few would be better qualified to speak to the role of forests in stormwater control.
Chapman easily persuaded several students to lug full watering cans on the hike, and the kids measured how that water acts when poured on different surfaces: how far does it run from the source, how quickly is it absorbed, where does it go?
The results were pretty clear. When water falls on rich, undisturbed forest floor, it disappears almost instantly, being sucked up by organic matter to nourish ready roots.
When poured on the well-used forest trail, though, compacted and already worn and washed down to clay, it runs and runs, eroding and picking up a load of sediment along the way, and pooling rather than being absorbed.
At the far forest edge, they found Chapman had led them to one of the huge MMSD detention basins on the Grounds, where they poured two more cans of water, one onto concrete and one onto the rocks of a bio-engineered stormwater swale leading into the basin.
The students were easily able to predict what would happen – and to extrapolate from it what does happen when water falls on their home streets and sidewalks and rooftops rather than onto trees and soil.
Other experts accompanied the hike, including Chris Kuntz, an outreach specialist with LEAF, a statewide K-12 Forestry Education Program based at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Kuntz found that 2013 has been the absolutely perfect year for one of her specialties: fungi, of which there was a stunning abundance in the woods this wet season.
“You just never see anything like this in August most years,” Kuntz told the kids as they examined a dozen varieties sprouting all around. Kuntz explained the role of fungus in breaking down dead trees and interacting beneficially with the roots of living ones.
Art teachers were also along, led by Dr. Laura Trafi-Prats, professor of art education at UWM. They pointed out interesting shapes and designs found in leaves and bark, collecting and inspiring ideas and images for the week’s culminating project: the “Urban Forest Banner Project.”
In that, the students individually and collaboratively will create a visual collage that will become a banner promoting forest appreciation.
The public is invited to Wil-O-Way, on Underwood Creek Parkway, from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday to see the results of the students’ work.
Even though these 28 youths will go back to their regular schools in September, they will still be students of the Forest Exploration School, said school director Danny Goldberg.
“We’ll be following them during the regular school year,” he said, “and there will be more programming like this. We’ll take them back to the woods.
“One student was interested in how we get maple syrup, so for instance, in the fall, when the leaves are in color, we’ll be out identifying maples. In the late winter, early spring we’ll be back again with people who know how to tap trees for sugar.“These kids will be ambassadors for the program as well, in their schools.”