The nature center behind Barnum High School was unusually busy on the afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 17.

While the rest of the school was in distance learning for the day, about 70 seventh grade students put their outdoor survival skills to the test — building shelters and fires, making meals and conducting experiments.

The day was just one lesson in an outdoor survival segment taught by high school science teacher Sandi Bird.

Every year for the last 25 years, Bird has dedicated approximately two weeks to teaching her youngest students the necessary skills to survive in cold and snowy weather.

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Barnum seventh grade life science teacher Sandi Bird watches as a student prepares a lunch of rice during the winter survival course Wednesday, Feb. 17. Bird has taught the course for 25 years. Her predecessor taught it for eight or nine years. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Barnum seventh grade life science teacher Sandi Bird watches as a student prepares a lunch of rice during the winter survival course Wednesday, Feb. 17. Bird has taught the course for 25 years. Her predecessor taught it for eight or nine years. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Bird grew up in Southern Minnesota and feels as though the annual winter survival lessons give students valuable skills for life in the northern state.

The project originated when former high school science teacher Steve Brandt saw a need for students to have basic outdoor survival skills. He started to incorporate lessons into his course and designated a day each year for students to spend time outdoors practicing different skills.

“He was a visionary,” Bird said when recounting Brandt’s work with the students.

Brandt has since retired from teaching, leaving the outdoor course to Bird.

“I’m constantly adding materials,” Bird said, explaining how she incorporates other classes into the survival segment.

Bird works closely with other teachers to ensure students have a well-rounded experience that focuses on the main aspects of outdoor survival.

High school social studies teacher Rich Newman covers Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” with his students, while high school English teacher Audra Richardson has her students read “No Word for Luck.”

Two Barnum students spread a ground sheet under a tarp shelter they erected as part of a winter survival course Wednesday, Feb. 17. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Two Barnum students spread a ground sheet under a tarp shelter they erected as part of a winter survival course Wednesday, Feb. 17. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

After learning about different topics and materials, the students end the course by spending an entire school day outside. Bird said she urges them to focus on three goals during that time: staying dry, staying warm and having fun.

“It’s pretty fun,” Barnum student Hartleigh Stecyk said while toasting a grilled cheese sandwich over a fire.

Stecyk said the experience was “kind of miserable” at first, but improved significantly after the fires were built.

In the morning, students were given a lab sheet containing different tasks for them to complete throughout the day, with shelter being their first priority, followed by fire.

Other activities included measuring snow before and after it melted and boiling an egg in a paper cup.

In addition to building shelters and campfires Wednesday, Feb. 17, Barnum students conducted scientific work — recording the temperature above, in, and below the snowpack; looking for wildlife signs; and melting a measured volume of snow to determine its water content. Here a student records his findings for the last exercise. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
In addition to building shelters and campfires Wednesday, Feb. 17, Barnum students conducted scientific work — recording the temperature above, in, and below the snowpack; looking for wildlife signs; and melting a measured volume of snow to determine its water content. Here a student records his findings for the last exercise. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

In the time leading up to their day in the woods, the students split themselves into groups. They planned ahead to bring materials to help them throughout the day. Some brought tools for cutting firewood; others brought metal grates and pans to cook on. Julian Beckstrand’s group brought a tent.

“It’s kind of cheating,” Beckstrand said when talking about the tent, but said that Bird had given their group permission to experiment and see how well the tent worked in the situation.

Bird said she allows the students to bring whatever they think is appropriate, and only provides each group with one box of matches and the tools needed for the labs. Each group is required to keep their fire going for the duration of the day.

Many students said building a fire was the most challenging assignment, but they were able to work together.

“It’s good to see the kids helping each other out,” high school science teacher Jodi Zhukov said.

Zhukov teaches an eighth grade science course and has been helping Bird with the outdoors day for the past 13 years. She said it serves as a good introduction to the students who will be in her classroom the next year.

The students sometimes talk about the outdoor survival day until they graduate, Zhukov said.

“It’s just a good day in general,” Bird said.