Cloquet High School science students and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources partnered to improve their school forest and combat climate change in recognition of Arbor Day on Friday, April 30.
Students and teachers spent much of the day planting more than 300 trees supplied by the DNR in the school forest areas on the Cloquet middle and high school campus. The event kicked off with a land blessing from teacher Wendy Waha and a song performed by a traditional Ojibwe drum circle that included Cloquet High School students.
National Arbor Day is observed the final Friday in April, although states observe it on dates of their choosing. Individuals and groups are encouraged to celebrate by planting trees.
After Cloquet Mayor Roger Maki read the proclamation from the City Council rededicating Cloquet to the Tree City USA program, middle school Principal Tom Brenner, high school Principal Steve Battaglia and freshman Bryce Paul carefully planted a white pine between the middle and high school buildings.
After the first tree was in the ground, pairs of freshmen from the Earth Systems class fanned out across the area and planted their own trees, but not before they had done some research in class about the changing environment.
“In general, Minnesota has become warner and more wet and increased precipitation is occurring in more intense events that are further apart,” science teacher Matt Winbigler said. “These changes are affecting the types of species that thrive in our area.”
Students realized through their work that there were areas of dead and diseased ash trees and studied the impact of the construction of the new middle school building. Working with DNR forester Thor Pakosz, students selected species more likely to thrive in the areas around the campus.
Pakosz said the DNR is providing more than 3,400 trees — including the spruce and maple seedlings planted in Cloquet — to schools in Carlton, St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties this spring to plant in learning forests.
Students also geotagged each seedling, so students can track the health of the trees they planted over a period of years.
“The idea is this is just the beginning of a program that can continue,” Winbigler said. “Sixth and eighth graders, as they trickle up through the grades, they’ll take some ownership over the project and it will continue to expand.”
The DNR School Forest program provides outdoor classroom space for 148 schools across Minnesota. Students learn and apply skills from a variety of subjects while gaining an appreciation and awareness of natural resources, according to the DNR site.
“Teachers can teach math, social studies, science and language arts in the outdoors, just like they would in the classroom,” DNR school forest coordinator Karen Harrison said. “But outside, they’re able to use hands-on, real world experiences — they might be finding angles in nature instead of looking at angles on a piece of paper ... We have everything from preschoolers who are just reading stories outside to high schools who are using chainsaws and actually managing their forests.”
School forests can be located on campus like in Cloquet or by partnering with local parks near the schools, Harrison said.
Pandemic limits ‘hands-on’ learning
The COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on the number of immersive learning experiences many science teachers use in their instruction. In experiments and other hands-on exercises, students are typically sharing tools and working in close proximity, Winbigler said — something severely limited by COVID-19 protocols.
The Arbor Day event gave them a chance to work in very small groups outdoors.
“For the last 12 months, they’ve been behind a screen in distance learning, they’ve been in hybrid mode,” Winbigler said. “The pandemic has had an effect on the types of activities they can do — in particular in science class, it’s normally so hands-on. We really wanted to be able to get outside, get dirty and give something back to the community.”
Students tramped through the mud with tools to plant the seedlings and enjoyed the sunny, spring weather.
“It’s just fun to finally get outside,” freshman Jake Peterson said.
Peterson wasn’t the only one to approve of Winbigler’s lesson plan for Arbor Day.
“You’re doing a great job, Matt,” Pakosz yelled as Winbigler walked back toward the building to lead another group of students outside.