Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility (WOLF) is a year-long educational opportunity for a select group of Springfield fifth-graders. The experience allows students to explore a curriculum of science through the context of nature and conservation. They attend class in a special facility at the Bass Pro Shops Wonders of Wildlife Museum and wherever their next outdoor learning experience takes them. A lot of their actual education comes from hands-on experiences in the field. The 46 annual participants are selected from a pool of applicants through a lottery.
I was recently able to participate in a field day hunting experience for the students at the Andy Dalton Shooting Range and Outdoor Education Center just north of Springfield. As I stomped though a field with Jason Anderson, the Executive Director of Elementary Learning for Springfield Schools, and Warren Rose, the Missouri Department of Conservation Southwest Regional Outreach and Education Regional Supervisor,
Watching fifth-graders develop a passion for conservation before my eyes, I couldn’t help but wish my children would have the same opportunity to participate in such an outstanding educational program.
Currently, Springfield is the only school system in Missouri with a program as extensive of a nature based learning program as WOLF. There are two WOLF teachers, Sue Doyle and Courtney Reece, who instruct students in the same core curriculum as other Springfield 5th graders. The difference for WOLF School participants is that all subjects are taught in the context of nature and conservation education.
“These students are immersed in conservation science from the first day they arrive to the last day they leave, so protecting natural resources in their own back yard becomes more than just something they learned about in school. It becomes a lifestyle. Many parents have commented that this experience ultimately set their child on a different path. Because it’s early in their education, I believe this experience will dramatically and positively affect their lives in ways we’re not even aware of,” Doyle said.
The program has incredible support from the Springfield community and the leadership of the school system. Bass Pro Shops has lent a big hand in the school, with the company’s founder, Johnny Morris, going above and beyond for conservation, as he so often does.
“WOLF has impacted the greater community in two specific ways. First, it has forged partnerships with organizations such as Bass Pro Shop’s Wonders of Wildlife and the Missouri Department of Conservation to provide an opportunity to use nature as a natural classroom setting. Second, it has provided a platform to develop other choice/magnet programs within our system- including Academy of Exploration, which has a STEM focus (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math), and our Health Sciences Academy, which focuses on health & wellness. These types of programs allow students to gain experiences earlier in the formalized school year to help them develop their interests and passions,” Anderson said.
The school helps set students on a path towards a life of conservation. Perhaps that includes a career in conservation, or maybe it just means these students have an overall better appreciation of nature and the outdoors, and simply serve as better citizens throughout their lives. They’ll also be able to positively impact the decision making of those around them.
“My favorite thing about the program is that it doesn’t just affect students. It brings families together. The students are excited about what they are doing in school and drag their parents out to the places we’ve been to do the things we have done in school. Parents are overjoyed that their almost-teenagers initiate family time because of the program,” Reece said.
Throughout the day, everyone I spoke with; students, parents, volunteers and instructors, repeatedly said how incredible it would be if this natured-based learning experience could be spread to schools statewide or even nationwide.
“As someone who has worked with schools in southwest Missouri for the last 14 years, I know most of them don’t have all of the resources to build a WOLF school, but the great thing I tell school administrators is they don’t have to. The Missouri Department of Conservation offers a wide array of teacher trainings, conservation education curriculum and outdoor skills activities that can provide their students many of the same exposures to nature the WOLF students have. The key is getting the students exposed to nature and getting them multiple touches. The rest will take care of itself,” Rose said.
Imagine being a fifth-grader who spends a year experiencing nature hands on. Learning in an outdoors classroom about science and the importance of protecting our natural resources. For these WOLF students, fields and streams replace the traditional classroom.
“Reading and mathematics is applied to outdoors rather than to a worksheet. It meets a specific niche for students that are drawn to the outdoors and makes conservation education relevant, personal and engaging,” Anderson said.
The WOLF School is a program that needs to be implemented at more schools across Missouri, so we can reconnect youth to nature. For more information about this incredible program, visit http://www.wondersofwildlife.org.
Kylyn Luckfield, a WOLF School participant receives proper shooting instruction from MDC resources assistant, Shawn Gamer.