Where the Wild Things Are | Feature | Chicago Reader

Where the Wild Things Are 

At a new learning center in the dunes, industry and environmentalists have found something they can agree on.

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By Harold Henderson

On the nastiest day in November, ten fourth- and fifth-graders from Klondike Elementary School in Lafayette, Indiana, sat down on a slippery, wet boardwalk in the Indiana Dunes. They looked out over a flat shrubby open space, which would have been a swamp if it had rained more last fall.

They opened their loose-leaf notebooks to begin work on an "ecosystem investigation chart," a printed grid with 60 spaces to answer 12 questions about five different ecosystems. They'd filled in the blanks for one ecosystem the day before. Stephanie Baumann, an instructor with the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center, handed out instruments one at a time, and the children took turns measuring and announcing the wind speed, air temperature, soil temperature. To answer the question "How long does a puddle last?" Baumann took a tin can with both ends cut out, jammed it into the ground, and poured a small yogurt container of water into it.

After the students wrote down their answers, they had a few minutes to write or draw their own descriptions of the area. Every now and then a gust of sleet made soggy spots on the paper.

If it were a child, the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center wouldn't be out of diapers yet. But since it opened on October 5, 1998, more than 3,000 students from 32 schools--roughly 300 of them from Chicago--have participated in its programs. The vast majority have been fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders who spend two and and a half days there. The center has a big dining room and ten heated and air-conditioned cabins with eight beds each, so full capacity is two sessions a week of 70 kids and 10 adults. A high school program, more buildings, and heavy-duty fund-raising are in the works. One-third of the center's $600,000 annual budget comes from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore--the national park in which it's located--one-third from student fees, and the rest from private contributions.

Environmental education has sparked controversy at the national level, and northwest Indiana has been bitterly divided over environmental issues for most of the last century. But the learning center is the product of unusual cooperation between industry and environmentalists, who share not only fund-raising but policy-making duties.

"People need to know about where they live and care about it," says board chair and veteran Chicago environmentalist Lee Botts. So the learning center serves those who live within 90 miles--in the Chicago area, northwestern Indiana, and southwestern Michigan. Geologically and ecologically, the Indiana Dunes area--which has attracted south-siders and others for more than a century--is like Chicago, only better preserved. Not that the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a wilderness sanctuary. It borders on interstates 80 and 90, a commuter railroad, blue-collar cities such as Gary and Michigan City, tony old railroad suburbs like Ogden Dunes, sprawl towns like Portage and Porter, several power plants, and the Midwest and Bethlehem steel mills.

"I can't wait to return," wrote a northwest Indiana teacher on the evaluation form after a session at the learning center this fall. "The natural environment replenishes my soul, your program replenishes my spirit for teaching children." In October a group of young campers advised the next group in a letter, "The trails are tiring. You will never want to leave."

We'd walked two miles to get to the boardwalk. Now we had to walk two more chilly miles back to an open-sided park shelter for a picnic lunch and a warm fireplace. Starting off the return hike, Baumann led the students in a rhythmic chant. She called out one line at a time and they echoed it back:

Fourteen thousand years ago

This land was covered with ice and snow.

It came and went time and again

That's how we got Lake Michigan.

"There is lots of material for students about the creatures of the Amazon rain forest and the Arctic," says Lee Botts, "but hardly anything about those around the southern end of Lake Michigan." Resisting the many prepackaged "environmental education" courses of study that can be taught anywhere, the learning center has kept its curriculum local. The first money that came in the door went right back out to retain curriculum consultant Elma Thiele, who lives in the area. The curriculum for fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders that she and her partners developed, called "Frog in the Bog," mixes games, science instruction, art, history, civics, and theater. Carol Fialkowski, the Field Museum's environmental educator in residence, says, "The curriculum is really well constructed and very interdisciplinary in nature."

Good environmentalists pay close attention to where they are. (Before students come to visit, the learning center asks them to draw a picture of a familiar outdoor place from memory in their journals, then visit it and add details they left out.) The duty to pay attention applies whether you're in a spectacular place like Yosemite or a seemingly barren place like the dunes. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore--at 15,000 acres, less than one percent of the size of Yellowstone--is one of the smallest national parks. Nevertheless it ranks seventh in number of native species, because many plants here are at the extreme north, south, east, or west end of their ranges. The dunes are rich in history too: it was here that University of Chicago botanist Henry Chandler Cowles did the research that helped define the discipline of ecology in the late 19th century and led him to publish "The Ecological Relations of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan" in the Botanical Gazette in 1899.

Tom Anderson--a learning center board member, executive director of the Save the Dunes Council, and a native of Michigan City--approves wholeheartedly of the center's local focus. He spent three years at a college 1,500 miles from home before he learned that some of the basic principles of plant succession had been discovered within shouting distance of his hometown. "All this work went on here, in ecologically one of the most important areas on the globe, and it never entered into the educational process here at all!"

But the learning center has an even more compelling reason to stick close to home. Northwest Indiana exemplifies the mainstream environmental lesson the center seeks to pass on--that green money and green nature can find ways to live together.

"I spent 20 years doing environmental education in pretty remote settings" in Mississippi and the Great Smoky Mountains, says Matthew Miller, explaining with a trace of Kentucky drawl why he moved north to run the learning center. "Many environmental-education people want students to appreciate that we can have a quality environment as well as a quality economy. But it's tough to put that perception out if you can't see it. Here we have a great model, a showcase--a high-quality natural environment right next to one of the world's great urban-industrial complexes."

There would be no peaceful showcase today if there hadn't been a war yesterday. The dunes are a great place to study ecology--in part because of their biodiversity, in part because the stark progression from bare beach to inland woods offers a freeze-frame panorama of how ecological succession proceeds over time. The dunes are also a great place to make steel. According to Thomas Easterly, environmental-services superintendent at Bethlehem Steel and a learning center board member, northwest Indiana combines workers, raw materials, and good bulk transportation. "If our company didn't have a plant here, we'd probably be out of business now."

For decades Chicago and northwest Indiana advocates of a "quality environment" duked it out with the advocates of a "quality economy." The grassroots environmentalists--led by the Save the Dunes Council since 1952--used lobbying, picketing, publicity, land purchases, local ordinances, and lawsuits to try to stop industrial development of the dunes. If they hadn't done so, the entire southern shore of Lake Michigan, aside from a few pricey residential enclaves, would now be as industrialized and inaccessible as the lakeshore in downtown Waukegan. Even now, just 13 of the 45 miles of Indiana coast are parkland.

The environmentalists lost a bitter battle in 1963. Bethlehem Steel, with assistance from Indiana state and local governments, excavated and flattened the tall, wild dunes where Cowles had done much of his fieldwork. The sand was barged across the lake to become fill for Northwestern University's lakefront campus. The environmentalists won a diminished victory three years later when, over the vociferous opposition of the same government bodies that supported development, Illinois' U.S. senator Paul Douglas succeeded in passing legislation establishing the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on the land that was left. (Its east and west units are separated by an area devoted to heavy industry, including the Bethlehem and Midwest steel mills, a power plant, and a deepwater port.) It's characteristic of this history that the Save the Dunes Council had to lobby all over again in 1967 to get an appropriation passed so that the federal government could buy any land for the park.

These events and many like them haven't been forgotten. Some locals still define people politically by where they stood back then. Newcomers hear the story in whispers ("We can't support him--he was against the park"). Grassroots environmental activism still flourishes here, as does grassroots antienvironmental activism.

In view of this history--documented in Kay Franklin and Norma Schaeffer's 1983 book Duel for the Dunes--the most startling lesson of the Environmental Learning Center is the fact that it exists at all. It's a business-environmentalist partnership. Its board of directors is approximately one-third educators, one-third environmentalists (my wife served as one of them until September), and one-third businesspeople. Business members include steel and utility executives, bankers, and the vice president of the Northwest Indiana Forum, an economic-development group. A separate 24-member group of trustees drawn from northwest Indiana business and industry has special fund-raising duties.

Why would a northwest Indiana steel company not just tolerate but actively support environmental education? "We're strong supporters of good science," says Easterly, "and this is good science--showing how things work together. The more people actually know about how things work together, the better off we are." Besides, "we're all getting older. People are seeing that we're here, they're here, and we all need to get along together in a constructive way." And as a practical matter, he adds, the people involved in the learning center "are so busy keeping up with Lee Botts that they don't have time to remember who did what to whom when."

If Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is the lengthened shadow of Paul Douglas, the Environmental Learning Center is the lengthened shadow of Botts. She could pass for your white-haired grandmother--provided that your grandmother is an indefatigable policy wonk who seems to know everybody and who revels in telling stories about past skirmishes, such as the time in 1981 when, as a lame-duck federal appointee, she was able to give a gathering of Michigan editors the scoop that James Watt, Reagan's secretary of the interior, was about to try to deauthorize four national parks, including Indiana Dunes and Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The learning center brings Botts back to where she started in the movement. When she became, in her words, the second professional environmentalist in Chicago more than 30 years ago, her assignment from the Open Lands Project was to promote environmental education in the schools, something she'd been doing in the Hyde Park schools her children attended. At that time, she says, the National Park Service was showing little enthusiasm for any of its legislatively mandated tasks of recreation, preservation, and education at the brand-new Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. "There were no programs," she says. "Just a few trails--nothing for the visitor." In 1969 Open Lands managed to get National Park Service funding to hold workshops for teachers about the dunes and to hire Wayne Schimpff to conduct them. (He now teaches horticulture and biology at Von Steuben High School; his students were the first Illinois high school class to go to the learning center.) "Within a year," recalls Botts with satisfaction, "we had teachers bringing students to the hearings on the bill to expand the park." Nevertheless she and others continued to feel that "the park was still under siege and probably always would be."

The National Park Service soon buckled down to the then-novel task of interpreting an urban national park and now provides programs for around 50,000 students a year. In 1985 the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education was built at the Gary end of the national lakeshore to offer environmental-education programs lasting from an hour to half a day. But these programs didn't go deep enough to suit environmentalists. Matthew Miller describes them as "traditional 'walks and talks' to impart facts," good but not sufficient. "There was a need for in-depth, longer-term exposure to the resource," he says, "something that would develop appreciation and awareness, and ultimately lead to changes in behavior."

The opportunity to do that lay close at hand. In the late 70s the national lakeshore acquired Camp Good Fellow, which had been operated by U.S. Steel for children of its employees from 1941 to 1976, and the Save the Dunes Council lobbied Congress to fund overnight environmental education there. Early proposals involved building nothing more than raised tent platforms, which might have involved a bit too much exposure to the environment for most tastes. (Some of the remaining old Good Fellow buildings may be reused as the learning center expands.)

In 1995 Congress approved $785,000 to build new cabins and a main building at the camp, but only after Indiana's Republican senator Richard Lugar saved the money from the Gingrich-ite budget cutters. The park soon decided that it could build and maintain an environmental-education facility but not run it. In the words of assistant superintendent Garry Traynham, a residential program would "require more attention than we could give." So the park sought a nongovernmental partner to operate the facility. An existing northwest Indiana nonprofit showed interest, then declined. In February 1997 Botts started drawing on a lifetime of regional connections to put together the nongovernmental partner, scrambling to assemble a board, a curriculum, a staff, and the private share of the budget. During an August 1999 visit Senator Lugar called the result an "outstanding cooperative effort."

From the beginning, the learning center not only has run its own program, but has promoted environmental education outside the park and across the region. Staff members have organized the Environmental Educators' Network of the Southern Lake Michigan Region, held a teachers' fair, and published a directory of area environmental-education resources. Plans are afoot to host a writers' workshop in hopes of expanding the environmental literature about this area.

The learning center benefits from being new. No one can hold long-standing grudges against something that didn't exist three years ago, and no one can complain that it has betrayed its traditions by bringing industrialists and environmentalists together. It also no doubt benefits from having an educational mission. "In the construction phase the park maintenance staff really took ownership," says Miller. "They volunteered after hours, came in on weekends. They still ask us how the kids are doing."

Being new has disadvantages too. Fund-raising fell short in the center's first year. "If we were a business," says Easterly, "we'd be out of business by now." However, Botts recently reported "the most amazing response" from bank and utility and industry officials who attended a fund-raising breakfast in the dining hall. She expected them to rush off to another meeting afterward, but "half of them hung around to look at the place. We walked down to the fire ring. They were in no hurry to leave." More to the point, they didn't blink when told that the center needs to raise $250,000 by next October.

"Who wants to be the idiot?" called Baumann.

The windswept park shelter was noisy with some 50 students, teachers, parents, and learning center instructors finishing lunch, chasing around, chatting, and warming themselves by the fireplace. Baumann produced a pack of homemade cards depicting local plants and animals (all the instructors make their own) and started up a game of "Idiothead" by strapping one to a volunteer student's forehead. The student had to find out what creature was on the card by asking a series of yes-or-no questions: "Is it a mammal? Is it a reptile? Is it a bird? Does it have brown wings?" When the student ran out of questions, Baumann mentioned that one of the trail groups had seen this creature on that morning's hike. She got the answer, and amid general hilarity another volunteer stepped up for a card.

"We try to steer clear of just imparting knowledge," says Matthew Miller. "I don't expect students to roll out after three days and identify ten trees, ten fish, and ten birds. They'll forget that." A session at the learning center is informal and entertaining--but, Lee Botts insists, "not a field trip." The curriculum leaves no time for going fishing or doing Indian crafts, yet it does have room for games like Idiothead, because they reward systematic thinking about local flora and fauna. "Anything that's active or experiential is remembered," says Indiana University professor Doug Knapp, who has made several studies of environmental education. "Games really hang on for a long time. If information is embedded in them, you have a better chance students will remember it."

The curriculum was put together with an eye to recently adopted state and federal science-education standards. Botts says, "We try to make sure [the experience at the learning center] gets integrated into the classroom." Schools that want to send a class must first send at least one teacher to participate in an overnight workshop at the center. That teacher then takes a "traveling trunk" back to school to help the students get ready. The trunk contains, among other things, two furry mammal skins; zebra mussel shells; crinoid fossils; a sample of sand; an herbarium mount of poison ivy; videos and tapes; field guides to birds, trees, and animal tracks; a copy of Edwin Way Teale's classic memoir Dune Boy; and a partly formatted journal for each student to write and draw in.

The journal invites each student to choose an indigenous plant or animal, ranging from beaver to yellow birch, from a list of 61, and then investigate it:

"(1) What does it look like? Draw a picture here.

"(2) How big is it?

"(3) What kind of places should you look for it?

"(4) Circle the name of the ecosystem or ecosystems at the National Lakeshore where you think you will find your organism: forest along Little Calumet River Trail, wetland along Cowles Bog Trail, oak savannah woodland, foredune, open beach.

"(5) If you don't find the organism itself, what evidence could you find that would prove it had been there?

"(6) Find out one especially interesting thing about your organism. You will be asked to share this information when you actually see the organism or find evidence that it has visited a place."

Most students need all the preparation they can get. Miller is amazed at how few children, even those who live nearby, have ever been on a trail. "They have no concept of what's out here." Many have had their expectations shaped by the media, for better and worse. Some wonder if there are bears. "Many kids, not just city kids, are afraid there will be people out here to abduct or hurt them," says Botts. One young camper returned home and reported, "We toasted marshmallows--just like on TV!"

First thing off the bus at the learning center on a Monday morning, incoming students do the "dance of the dunes." Each names a plant and makes some kind of motion for it, then does the same for an animal. "Then we combine the most fun actions and everybody does them all together," says program manager Christine Kirk. Within minutes the instructors know how much use the teachers and students have made of the traveling trunk. If a lot of students pick things like "elephant" and "redwood tree" for the dance, they probably haven't been prepared to pay attention to this particular place. (At program's end two days later, one of the last activities is a reprise of the dance, this time focusing on local plants and animals.)

"From my perspective," says Kirk, "teachers determine a lot. Either they've prepared the students, and the students arrive excited about learning more, or the teachers haven't done so and have painted this as a fun field-trip experience. We make it work either way."

Activities on the first day include team-building exercises, short hikes, and the investigation of one ecosystem. Even lunch has its place in the lesson plan. At the beginning of their first meal, an instructor introduces the center's Food Waste Hall of Fame, a list of the least wasteful groups that have attended. "We think food and water and punch and things like that are resources," she explains to the assembled campers. "We should only use what we need and leave the rest. If you think you can eat only one piece of pizza, just take one."

"The kids were absolutely stunned by the idea of weighing leftovers," recalls Julie Sacco, Chicago Wilderness education coordinator at the Nature Conservancy in Chicago, who brought 27 fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders already involved in the Mighty Acorns stewardship program to the learning center in July. "They asked, 'Why? This is garbage--it's just going to be tossed out.'" Overcoming their amazement, they reduced their food waste from five pounds the first day to less than one the last day.

After lunch the group travels back to 1916--the year Stephen Mather, the Chicago millionaire who became the first director of the National Park Service, proposed a "sand dunes national park." In what's called the "champions of the dunes" part of the program, instructors dress in period costumes to explain different perspectives on the area. In the evening students take a night hike and a "solo" hike, in which the instructor walks ahead 30 seconds, and then the kids come up the trail one by one to where she is. Adults accustomed to the outdoors may not think that's solo, but to the kids it is. "There's a lot of apprehension about that," says Kirk. "We tell them it's something you don't want to do ahead of time--and then when you do it, you want to do it again."

The second day they go on the long hike, prefaced by a humorous but serious explanation of wilderness procedures for essential bodily functions. "We're going to be out in nature," says instructor Erin Yeoman. "Are there bathrooms in nature?" Afterward they discuss all their ecosystem investigations--"why each ecosystem is different, how they form, why different animals live there, how they're so close together," says Kirk.

The agenda for that evening's campfire depends on the group. "If they're worn out or came unprepared we just have fun. If they're ready for more"--Kirk says about half of the groups are--"we talk about the modern dilemmas of the dunes." The three dilemmas they talk about involve the growing deer population, the exotic invasive plant purple loosestrife, and the potential expansion of the Gary airport.

The students divide into three groups, and a student leader from each group gets a card describing the dilemma and various viewpoints on it. "We consider all the perspectives, as we did with 1916," says Kirk. "If they're receptive, we'll have them make up a skit about their dilemma. Often it ends up like a sort of town council where some act like crazy environmentalists and some like crazy industrialists. Sometimes they give up on resolving the dilemma and think we'll always have to live with it." Miller says the dilemmas bring out the regional nature of the resources, the cultural and human side of the issues, and the fact that "there are no black-and-white answers--everything is shades of gray, and you have to consider trade-offs and compromises," including unexpected ones. "They've seen and heard about air pollution and water pollution. But the idea that introducing a plant species where it doesn't belong could cause environmental problems--that's new to them."

The morning of the third day, a ranger explains the National Park Service and what a ranger does. The students write a letter to the next group of campers, have a brief graduation ceremony, and do a final dance of the dunes. Then they're off, just as a new group arrives for the second half of the week.

According to Miller, about 70 percent of participating schools want to come back. "One school system told us they intended to use their casino money to set up a permanent endowment to bring all their fifth-graders here every year." Such loyalty is welcome, but the center doesn't allow particular schools or districts to monopolize the facility or even to keep the same dates every year.

With one instructor for every ten students, the learning center is a labor-intensive enterprise. That makes for an economic squeeze. The center charges $66 per student, though the actual cost is $91 per student, and it offers scholarships to about a quarter of its students. Even so, visitors have to scramble to find the money. Klondike Elementary got a "service learning" grant from the Indiana Department of Education, because its fourth- and fifth-graders who came to the learning center will work with at-risk first- and second-graders at a local bog when they return. Julie Sacco of the Nature Conservancy says she couldn't have brought her Mighty Acorns to the center last summer without grants from Chicago Wilderness and the Grand Victoria Foundation.

The official title of the instructors is "naturalist intern." Their pay of $150 a week and their usual tenure of only a year are more in line with the word "intern" than with "instructor." They are almost all women, most of them in their 20s. Women applicants outnumber men by about ten to one, Kirk says, perhaps because men want to earn more money or are less interested in working with children. She'd like to hire more men. "I've worked in other places like this, and the kids all wished they were in the men's trail groups. I don't know if men really understand how much kids need them."

Having recovered from the morning's four-mile trek, all but five children volunteered for an after-lunch hike to the beach (where two school buses would eventually pick them up and bring them back to the learning center). As we came down to the lake, the icy wind whipped sand in our faces--dunes on the march. Whitecapped waves crashed on the shore, incoming breakers extended in rows parallel to the shoreline like snowdrifts. The Loop skyline loomed across the lake to the northwest, dark steel mills to the east and west.

On a normal day students and instructors would have spent a couple of hours on the beach, sculpting sand fish, doing scavenger hunts, and playing the salmon game. The salmon game is adapted from a national environmental-education program, in which the students play the parts of baby salmon that must survive a series of obstacles--turbines (a jump rope), predators (played by their teachers), fishermen (likewise), dead salmon (most of their classmates, caught in the earlier hazards), and finally a waterfall (a box). The game is an information-packed favorite, but in deference to the weather, the instructors decided to cut it short today. Someone brought out bread crusts. Mooching seagulls congregated above our heads and waited for tidbits, flying hard to stay in the same place, facing north into the relentless wind.

"Where's the conflict?" I asked Matthew Miller one morning. "Hasn't anyone said anything bad to you?"

He paused and looked almost embarrassed. "There just hasn't been any," he said. "We keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then again, it's tough to throw stones at something with such a broad base of support."

The learning center's education program aims to achieve five goals. The first and broadest is for students to "develop an understanding of the need for conservation and protection of natural resources." It would be a bold right-winger indeed who would attack environmental education at this level of generality. But on the national scene, conservatives and libertarians have criticized some environmental-education curricula, alleging that they unduly alarm students, misinform them about current hot-button issues, or push them into ill-informed activism. Examples aren't hard to come by, given that education in general is prone to fads and to a kind of naive do-goodism. According to the on-line newsletter "Sustainability Review," for instance, the Environmental Education Network in Canada offers a "pedagogical model" in which students are encouraged to "call attention in their environment [to] any problem significant to them" and evolve an action plan. In contrast, the learning center's journal has students start closer to the ground--literally: "Look for evidence that ecosystems have been disturbed. Try to identify what has caused the disturbance. Write your observations into this chart. Make a guess about how long ago you think the disturbance happened. Plan to present a skit showing how you think the disturbance happened."

But don't the students themselves want to do something more? Indeed they do, says Miller. He encourages teachers to continue projects back at school. "Some schools have tried our food-waste program." And some days the students' newly acquired knowledge turns to action on the spot. "One day on Cowles Bog Trail, we had just been talking about plant life and biodiversity and why we all needed to stay on the trail. Then a runner came up behind us. We would have gotten out of his way, but he made a big circuit around the group, running through the woods. The kids started yelling at him to get back on the trail--it was kind of embarrassing."

All education promotes values of some kind. Indoctrination does it crudely; sophisticated teaching gives students more ways to form their own judgments. "To start with," says Miller, "you have to provide an awareness of where they [the students] are. Then the next step is appreciation--'Gee, this is kind of a neat place.' Then knowledge--once you appreciate, you want to learn more. Then you get into understanding, seeing how the pieces start fitting together, how society interacts with the water cycle and the carbon cycle. Then hopefully you get a change in actions and behavior as young people get to be of voting and parenting age. But you can't get to actions and behavior without that awareness."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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