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Rural Missouri Magazine

An Environment
For Learning
Earth's Classroom takes education outdoors

by Bob McEowen

Jody Miles crouches like a cat ready to pounce as she tells a story to a group of home-school children gathered at Earth's Classroom, an outdoor environmental education center near Rosebud. Her voice rises and falls as she recounts a trip she and her husband took to a national park and the wildlife they observed there.

Jody Miles' animated storytelling holds students in rapt attention as she begins the dayÕs lessons at Earth's Classroom. Jody and her husband, Bill, formed the outdoors education center in 1999.

The story itself isn't particularly dramatic but Jody's animated presentation has the children hooked.

"We were taught in college to start with a 'pow!'" she says. "A pow is something that really draws them in and hooks them. It's all about stirring emotions."

"You want to captivate your audience with some sort of introduction that's stimulating, whether it's a story or a personal experience" adds Bill Miles, Jody's husband and co-founder of the center which offers classes and field trips to teachers at their east-central Missouri location.

The couple earned degrees in natural history outdoor education from Northland College in Ashland, Wisc., just three years ago. The school, widely considered to have the top environmental studies program in the nation, stresses hands-on, "experiential" education in which people learn about ecology and the environment by doing rather than merely reading or listening.

Earth's Classroom, which began in 1999, consists of a small shelter, a few picnic tables and some split log benches that form an outdoor amphitheater on 179 acres — including 112 owned by Jody's parents, Russell and Ginny Blankenship. Much more important is the mix of woods, fields and streams on the land which allows the couple to share their enthusiasm for the environment.

"The setting is wonderful and Bill and Jody are just fantastic teachers," says Wendy Pelton, the mother and everyday teacher of two of the children listening to Jody's tale.

"They can take topics that the kids would go, 'Birding? I don't want to do birding!' and yet you'll come out here and have such a lot of fun. The kids get hooked."

Students at Earth's Classroom, an environmental learning center near Rosebud, listen as Bill Miles leads a discussion on scientific observation. As an exercise, objects were laid on a table, then covered and students were asked to recall what they had seen.

Birding, or ornithology, is just one of the many programs Earth's Classroom offers. Other topics include aquatic ecosystems, mammals, botany, ecology, Earth's magnetism, herbs and phenology, or the study of change over time.

Cultural history classes cover American Indians, the Civil War and Missouri's southern fur trade with Bill and Jody dressing in costume to add realism to the topics.

Visiting groups select from more than a dozen two-hour-long programs to create an individualized field trip. Each class involves hands-on learning.

In the aquatic class students gather stream life in a net and must identify what they find. In phenology they make rubbings of leaves to compare with those they'll make during a later visit. Earth's magnetism students learn map and compass skills while orienteering on the grounds.

"I know that I learn much more intensely this way," Jody says of hands-on experiences. "It sinks in. It stays with me for much longer than if I just sat there and read in a textbook."

Even traditional classroom teachers agree.

"Some of the brain research I've read says (students) retain 90 percent of what they do and only about 20 percent of what they read and take tests on," says Beth Witte, an American history teacher at Owensville Middle School and a member of Earth's Classroom's board of directors. "I don't think you can do it all outdoors but neither should you do it all indoors at the desks."

Jody suggests a tree bud as an example of something to observe as the students begin a phenology class. The class focuses on changes in the environment over time. The students selected a specific area on the Earth's Classroom grounds and will return over a three-month period to record changes.

The Miles agree and say they strive to build on the foundation students receive in the classroom. Aware that teachers must comply with state mandates, teachers are supplied a list of the applicable state standards for each Earth's Classroom course.

"We're not trying to teach anything that the teachers aren't trying to teach," Bill says. "We just provide a different way to experience the education."

Witte, who is developing an outdoor classroom at Owensville Middle School, says she's seen how the learning-by-doing approach at Earth's Classroom makes history come alive for her students.

"They used flint strikers to start a fire. They threw tomahawks. They got to go inside a teepee. They thought they were having fun but they were actually learning," Witte says. "They'll remember that a lot longer than the lessons we do out of the books."

To date more than 3,000 students from first grade through high school seniors and even university students have attended Earth's Classroom. Schools are charged by the student — $3 for a half day, $5 for all day. Most of the students come from within 100 miles of Rosebud.

In addition to classes held at the outdoor facility, Bill and Jody take their programs to schools and other organizations. They also hold public events like a recent evening presentation on the American woodcock. "We went out and saw its courtship dance and spied on it for a while and learned all kinds of cool natural history facts," she says.

Despite all the activity Earth's Classroom remains a part-time endeavor.

To make ends meet, Bill, 25, and Jody, 24, work other jobs. Both are naturalists at Meramec State Park. Bill works for the Missouri Botanical Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve and until recently, Jody waited tables one night a week.

Two young home-school students record their observations in a journal as part of a phenology class.

Bill and Jody also spend time gathering support for their fledgling center. As a not-for-profit corporation, Earth's Classroom qualifies for tax-deductible contributions. Members receive a newsletter, discounts on public events and the right to use the grounds during a member's day held once each month.

When not working, teaching or raising money the couple concentrates on the land itself, adapting Jody's father's land into a teaching laboratory.

Besides constructing the outdoor amphitheater and developing trails around the property the couple has cut cedars and shrubs to create a savannah in the woods and are restoring 7 acres of pasture to native prairie. They're also making improvements to the streams and ponds used in their aquatic ecosystem courses.

But more than just creating a classroom Bill and Jody seek to practice the beliefs they teach others. As strongly as they feel about experiential learning, the couple is even more adamant about protecting the environment.

"It's a little tiny planet," Bill says. "It's sitting out here in the middle of space and if you abuse it it's going to catch up to you sooner or later."

Although they say they hold a balanced view on the environment, the need to respect and protect resources is inherent in all of Bill and Jody's presentations.

"We're trying to encourage people to see that there's more than just money value to things, there's some intrinsic, moral value to things," Bill says. "An oak tree is more than just firewood or building material. It's a living breathing thing," he says.

"An oak tree provides oxygen we breathe every day. It helps clean our water that we drink."

Bill and Jody's care for the environment and the innovative way they're sharing it with children prompted Northland College to honor the couple with its first outstanding alumni award.

It's a commitment that's not lost on local supporters, either. "I'm very impressed by what they're doing," says Witte. "They've got a dream and they're making it happen."

For more information write Earth's Classroom, 3649 Pumpstation Road, Rosebud, MO 63091; or call (573) 437-7628. You can also find them at www.earthsclassroom.org.

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