There is a fine mist in the air, not rain but a light dusting of
dampness. And the sky remains a pale yellow color, without the threat
of dark clouds or lightning.
Emily Kurtz, a teacher at the Macbride Nature Recreation Area who
holds a masters degree from The University of Iowa in science
education, leads a group of about a dozen 10- and 11-year-olds on
a narrow path through tall prairie grasses. She stops to point at
a plant with spade-shaped leaves.
"This is poison ivy," she announces, and the children
gather in closely to examine it. "Who knows what poison ivy
Hands shoot up and everyone agrees: poison ivy makes you itch.
Kurtz nods and describes how each exposure makes a person more allergic.
"But who knows the good things about poison ivy?" she
The children are silent; their hands remain at their sides. Kurtz
goes on to explain that poison ivy is a "guardian" of
the wilderness, that it grows along the perimeter where people have
disturbed nature, and that of the entire animal kingdom, only human
beings are affected by it. Some creatures even eat its leaves in
the fall, so once it is finished protecting the land, poison ivy
provides sustenance for its natural inhabitants.
As she speaks, the children stoop down to get another look and
scribble a few notes. They are wearing hooded rain slickers, carrying
journals, pencils, and brightly colored hula hoops. A few hundred
yards farther up the path, they will throw the hoops into a flat
expanse of waving grasses, then theyll record everything they
observe inside the circle: insects, animal droppings, flowers, and
This is prairie day at School of the Wild in the Macbride Nature
Recreation Area, a tract of land leased from the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers that is managed and maintained by the University. Thanks
to staff from the College of Education, and environmental grants
from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state, 17
Iowa schools have the opportunity to participate in this program
each year. Today, it is the fifth-grade class from Coralville Central
Before the week is out, the students will learn survival skills,
find edible plants, and make shelters from fallen branches and logs.
With the help of licensed experts, they will hold and band birds
with identification tags and then track their migration. They also
will catch a foot-and-a-half long bullfrog in Spider Pond, name
him Big Dave (after School of the Wild coordinator Dave Conrads),
and kiss him several times before letting him go. Fifth-grade teacher
Dan Mascal is here with them, and he says this is one of the most
important units he will teach all year.
"Iowa is one of the most physically altered states in the
United States," Mascal says. "Weve lost 99 percent
of our native prairies and more than 80 percent of our wetlands.
School of the Wild offers kids an awareness and appreciation of
our natural environment."
Thats why Macbride area directors are working on plans for
the construction of a residential learning center on site. Their
goal is to make the Universitys environmental education programs
available to schoolchildren throughout the state. Conrads, who helped
found School of the Wild as well as the Universitys summer
Wildlife Camps, says environmental programs like these help students
gain confidence and apply their skills to other curricula, such
as social studies, science, and history.
"You actually get experience doing something like this,"
says Jesse Searls, 11. "You get to see the stuff live instead
of looking in a book and seeing a picture. Thats how School
of the Wild is different from what we do in class."