Summer Adventures at the Urban Ecology Center

by Beth Fetterley and Jenny West The Urban Ecology Center will soon be kicking off an array of summer programs for young people who have completed grades one through 12. Jenny West, who participated in last year’s Outdoor Leaders program for high schoolers, says “you would be surprised at what nine strangers and a handful of incredible teachers can do with a little creativity.” For Outdoor Leaders, the first week is leadership training. Last year students went on daily excursions, becoming “experienced” rock climbers, canoe specialists, and animal care givers. The second week of the Leaders program takes place at a science research facility. Last summer participants traveled to the Teton Science School in Wyoming. This year they will visit either the Teton Science School or the Maine Maritime Academy. Last year’s research topics included insects, birds, forest fires, ground squirrels, and bison. “Not only did we learn about our specified areas but we also learned what it was like to conduct true field research,” Jenny says. The teens were rewarded with a trip to Yellowstone National Park after presenting their findings. Now back in Milwaukee they have entered the third phase of the trip. Using the leadership skills they acquired, the teens must complete 40 hours of service to the Urban Ecology Center by June of next year. Their options range from cleaning out animal cages to creating their own projects. “The required 40 hours of service helps ensure that we use the skills we acquired,” Jenny says. “This summer excursion was truly an experience of a lifetime and also a leadership lesson in disguise.” Many Outdoor Leaders become camp counselors for the Urban Ecology Center’s summer day camps for children who have completed grades one through eight. These inquiry-based programs are camper directed. Every Monday starts with team building and get-to-know-you activities followed by a short outdoor exploration and a brainstorming session. By the end of the day, the chalkboard is filled with questions campers want to explore. The staff uses these questions as they plan the week’s lessons. Last summer, Nature Explorers were interested in water chemistry and things that fly, so they searched for flying seeds and butterflies. They tested water for oxygen levels and temperature and figured out why there may be differences in water in the river, aquariums, and in the lake. Young Naturalists, entering grades six and seven, were into bugs, frogs and turtles. They caught water bugs, butterflies, moths and even some toads. At Lincoln Park they watched an adult dragonfly emerge from its larval skin, and saw a cicada do the same thing by the door of the Urban Ecology Center. They learned how insects grow, how many eyes they have and why they look the way they do. For their final project, they made homemade insect nets out of dowels, wire, clamps and pillowcases. Urban Ecologists started their week with two days of heat advisories, but they used the hot sunny days to their advantage, designing an experiment to find out how animals have adapted to extreme conditions. They enjoyed solar baked cookies, and they designed their own solar oven.
by Beth Fetterley and Jenny West