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From Acorns to Oaks

Shirley Heinze Land Trust, Indiana

Shirley Heinze Land TrustIt is easy to underestimate the potential of acorns. Looking at a forest of majestic oak trees, we often forget that each leafy tower of strength grew out of a tiny, hardened shell placed in an environment with sufficient water, appropriate soil nutrition and adequate sunshine. Shirley Heinze Land Trust in Indiana is able to see not only the forest and the trees, but also the enormous potential in their cadre of “Mighty Acorns.” Since 2009, they have been partnering with the Field Museum of Chicago and the Dunes Learning Center at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on a highly successful program that provides students from Northwest Indiana an opportunity to reconnect with nature through a variety of study and stewardship excursions.

Deep Roots and Wide Canopies

Mighty Acorns represents a collaboration of public agencies, park districts, private organizations and cultural institutions that work with schools throughout the academic year to give children an opportunity to engage with their natural surroundings. With a focus on experiential learning, environmental education is pursued through classroom studies and field-based stewardship. The Field Museum of Chicago has been running this program with outstanding success since 1993.

In 2009, the Field Museum decided to expand Mighty Acorns to other urban areas in the Chicago region. Shirley Heinze Land Trust determined that they would be the perfect partner for this expansion. The organization’s staff initiated a discussion with school administrators in Hobart, Indiana, and together they began to brainstorm on how to utilize existing resources to get kids outside. As it turns out, an elementary school sits adjacent to one of the nature preserves held by Shirley Heinze Land Trust. During the 2009-2010 school year, the inaugural class of fourth graders explored the preserve.

The Mighty Acorns program involves a curriculum for fourth through sixth graders that aligns with state standards, and the unique habitat on the preserve provides a special opportunity to highlight local natural resources. During their first year of the program, Shirley Heinze utilized and adapted the syllabus to meet the needs of teachers (and resources available) with tremendous success; fifth grade classrooms were quickly added in the following year. In Hobart, students transition to middle school in the sixth grade, and it has proven challenging to arrange a set of field trips that work within a school day that is subdivided into class periods. Discussion with the middle school continues to find a workable solution.

Today, the Mighty Acorns program facilitated by Shirley Heinze Land Trust serves 33 classrooms and 865 students, with plans to expand to almost 50 schools and more than 1,000 students during 2012-2013. During the past year, the Dunes Learning Center has also gotten on board and brings expertise in place-based environmental education. The Dunes Learning Center has previously specialized in overnight and camp-like programs, and Shirley Heinze Executive Director Kris Krouse is hopeful that a partnership offering environmental education from elementary through high school can be forged.

Until last year, this entire effort was coordinated by staff and volunteers who were stretched across multiple responsibilities. A $50,000 grant was received to support a full-time Education and Volunteer Management position, and Jim Erdelac was promoted into that role in 2011. When asked what makes this unique compared to other environmental education programs, Jim has a ready answer: Might Acorns is hands-on. Rather than a hike from a bus, out to a bog, and then back to the bus, these kids are actually participating in restoration. During the winter and spring field trips, exotic species are removed; then during the fall, the seeds of native plants, harvested the year before, are carefully planted in the cleared fields. “They see the full circle,” says Erdelac.

Seeing the Forest, the Trees and the Acorns

The staff at Shirley Heinze Land Trust feel an obligation to the community that supports their work. Through their partnership with the Field Museum, Hobart Schools and the Dunes Learning Center, the staff ensures that the nature preserves they manage around the region are accessible to the people living nearby. Just as important, an environmental ethic must be cultivated over time. The Mighty Acorns program provides the healthy air, water, soil and sunshine to ensure that children grow up with a strong understanding of the importance of land conservation.

Seeing Results

  • A survey instrument administered at the beginning and end of the school year provides a similar set of questions to students before and after the classroom exercises and stewardship outings to gauge familiarity with environmental concepts. The change over even one year, says Shirley Heinze Education and Volunteer Manager Jim Erdelac, is dramatic.
  • Educators and community members alike are enthusiastic about expanding the Mighty Acorns program because of the benefits that they have already seen. One teacher remarked, “My students are better able to write about science concepts because of the Mighty Acorns program.”
  • This project also brings direct benefits to the teachers. Involvement requires day-long teacher training workshops to prepare them for the fall, winter and spring field trips and classroom studies. With both curriculum and field-based support from Shirley Heinze staff and the Field Museum, instructors are provided with many tools to ensure success.

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Writer: Joan Campau
Editors: Sheila McGrory-Klyza and Christina Soto
Photo: Leslie Mancilla, courtesy of Shirley Heinze Land Trust

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