by Carrol Henderson
It's no secret that kids don't get outdoors much anymore. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children today spend as much as 7.5 hours per day using electronic media indoors and less than a half-hour a week playing outside.
Rather than asking children to choose between technology and the outdoors, a new environmental education project is blending the two, using the gee-whiz, instant-gratification features of digital cameras. Digital Photography Bridge to Nature is a project of the Department of Natural Resources Nongame Wildlife Program and project partner Watchable Wildlife Inc. It puts schoolchildren and cameras together in state parks or other natural settings. A team of birders, nature photographers, and outdoor enthusiasts helped develop the program to teach teachers how to draw children outdoors to discover the wonders of birds, bugs, and flowers—through the lens of a camera.
At the inaugural teacher workshop in Luverne in July 2010, wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg told his childhood story to nearly 100 teachers, educators, biologists, and DNR staff. Brandenburg told the audience that he grew up on a farm nearby. In his grade school class, he was the smallest student. In high school, he was not an athlete and not a successful student of English. But he was an excellent hunter and trapper.
Exploring the prairie one day, he spotted a red fox. He crouched behind a boulder and began making the sound of an injured rabbit. When the fox came within a few feet, he took its photo. Adapting his hunting skills to nature photography, Brandenburg eventually blossomed as a photographer, first at the Worthington Daily Globe newspaper and then with National Geographic. All of this magic began with a $3 camera.
Brandenburg and the teachers gathered at Touch the Sky prairie reserve northwest of town. Then teachers took photos with guidance from Brandenburg.
Teachers found out how to guide their students on a similar photo safari. Digital Bridge loans the teachers digital cameras and field guides for outdoors classes. The workshop shows teachers how to incorporate student photos into coursework, such as science, math, art, geography, and journaling. And it helps teachers meet state learning standards and receive continuing education credits.
A nature photo workshop for about 90 middle school students at Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield demonstrated how placing digital cameras in the hands of kids can be a transformative experience. Photographer Dudley Edmondson showed beautiful images of birds, butterflies, and flowers taken in his yard in Duluth. "You don't need to go to far-off places like Alaska to take great photos," he told the students. "You can take them right in your own backyard."
Following his presentation, a dozen wildlife biologists joined the teachers to serve as mentors for students on a photo safari.
The students changed from rambunctious, inattentive teenagers to intensely focused, budding photographers, trying to see nature through a lens. They slowed down, they watched, and they listened. They looked for hidden insects, patterns of tree bark, and animal footprints along the trail. Many students had never used a camera. They wanted to come back to the nature center with their families and take more photos.
The project set a two-year goal to deliver 80 workshops to DNR state park naturalists and teachers of grades three through nine. The first project of its kind in the nation, Digital Bridge has presented more than 40 workshops to over 600 teachers in the first nine months, potentially reaching 36,000 students.
Teachers have found the digital cameras are the perfect tool for incorporating the outdoors into meaningful classroom projects.
"I took my third graders out on the playground in October, where they took amazing photos. They then wrote nature poems to go with their photos. The kids absolutely love it!" said Sherry Hastings, a third-grade teacher from Appleton. "The [Digital Bridge] class was so helpful. One of the best I've ever taken, and one of my favorite projects to do with the students."
Greg Elseth, a junior high teacher in Gaylord, made the digital camera outing part of a four-week course in phenology. "[The students] are putting together either a PowerPoint or a poster to share with the class. I believe most were quite interested in improving their photography skills."
Watchable Wildlife advises other resource agencies nationwide on using Minnesota's model. Minnesota teachers interested in scheduling a workshop can do so through Digital Photography Bridge to Nature.