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
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
"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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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."
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
"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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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
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.