Fifth graders experience nature up close

Annual spring conservation field day hosted by Wilson Creek Orchard in Wittenberg
Kevin Passon

A dozen classes of fifth graders spent their May 9 school day at a Wittenberg orchard where they increased their knowledge of the environment through discussions and interactive sessions in nine categories of conservation.

“Our Youth Conservation Field Day is an opportunity to get them out in the field, experience what nature and our environment has to offer, and have a bunch of our area resource professionals share their knowledge and their expertise on different aspects of natural resources and careers in natural resources and agriculture,” said Scott Frank, Shawano County conservationist and head of the Shawano County Land Conservation Department.

This is the third annual event at Wilson Creek Orchard. The event was supposed to begin in 2020 but was delayed for two years due to COVID.

“This year, we’ve maxed out,” Frank said. “We’ve reached our capacity for schools.”

More than 200 students from six schools participated – Wittenberg, Birnamwood, Marion, Tigerton, Bowler and Keshena.

Students broke into nine groups and walked their way around the farm, stopping at each of the nine learning stations. Resource professionals at each station talked and interacted with the students on topics that covered prairie and pollinators, aquatic invasive species, stream ecology, agriculture, soils, orchards, a Conservation Jeopardy game, renewable energy, and terrestrial invasive species.

Scott Reuss, UW-Extension crops and soils agent, led the agriculture session.

“Agriculture in a nutshell – the easiest definition – is the method and science of food production,” he said. “Food is what keeps us alive. If we didn’t have agriculture, we wouldn’t be able to live the way we do, because agriculture, even though it does have a relatively small number of people that are involved in it, it is literally what allows us to live the way we do.”

He pointed across the field to a farmer planting corn and helped the students make the connection from planting corn to feeding the corn to dairy cows that produced the milk that was made into cheese, ice cream and yogurt.

“(Planting corn) isn’t the actual science of making milk over there, but they’re making the feed that gives the cattle the energy and the nutrients to do what they need to do, just like the food that we produce in agriculture gives all of us the energy and nutrients that we need to be able to survive and thrive and do all the fun stuff we do,” he said.

Jamie Patton, soil health coordinator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service, stood in 4-foot-deep hole to make her points about soil.

Patton noted that soils are under our feet at all times, and people use them to grow things, play with and build on. Students learned how soils are formed and how to tell different types of soil apart.

“I have done this for 25 to 30 years, and do you know what I found?” Patton asked. “Nothing! Nothing cool. One of my colleagues found a whole den of giant sloths all preserved down in the soil. Many of my colleagues have found mastodon teeth, meteorites. I got to hold one (meteorite) in my hands. It was worth a million dollars, but I had to give it back.”

The fifth graders played the part of electrons in a life-size demonstration of how a solar panel works at the renewable energy station. The interactive display was led by Wendy Stelzer, a UW-Stevens Point youth and community engagement specialist with the K-12 Energy Education Program.

She presented a solar panel as a four-layer sandwich. The bread layers at the top (glass) and bottom (plastic) give the panel structure. The meat and cheese in the center are the business layers.

“They (the panels) go through a special process in the manufacturing process that makes them produce the energy from the sun,” she said. “The sun shines down on a solar panel, and it starts the little particles that make up these two layers start moving round. It’s like dancing. The sun is giving them their energy. They’re getting energized.

“The electrons can only move in one direction. They go from the bottom layer of the solar panel to the top layer of the solar panel. And then we attach a wire to that top layer, and then we continue it on and bring it back to the bottom layer. In between, we put an appliance, like your computer or your TV.”

The electrons move from the bottom panel to the top panel, through the wire to the appliance before returning to the bottom layer to start the process all over again.

Frank said a new push this year is raising awareness of single-use plastics and the damage they can cause the environment.

“We’re trying to promote limiting our use of single-use plastics,” he said. “We’ve been working with area partners to purchase reusable water bottles for every student.”

This is possible through support from Wilson Creek Orchard, Waterways Association of Menominee and Shawano Counties, Lumberjack Resource Conservation and Development Council, Shawano County Farm Bureau and Shawano County Land Conservation Department. In addition, a nylon drawstring backpack was given to each student, made possible through support from Lumberjack RC&D.

The Youth Conservation Day began in 2012 with a program at Navarino Nature Center. There was little programming then for fifth graders, so making the day for them seemed like a natural fit, Frank said.

A program in Navarino is still held each fall for schools on the eastern end of Shawano County.