Think Outside puts students outdoors

Printer-friendly version

The following story was written by Katherine Perreth and appeared in a recent edition of the Middleton-Cross Plains Times-Tribune. The newspaper gave the District permission to run the article.

By midsummer 2020, Wisconsin’s Ice Age National Scenic Trail will have experienced the pitter-patter of an additional 20,000 elementary-school-age feet. At least, that’s the goal of the U.S. National Park Foundation (NPF) partnership with the Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA).

Just before the school year kicked off, the NPF proposed Cross Plains-based IATA accept a grant to expand their Saunters program for Wisconsin fourth-graders, which is dedicated to Ice Age Trail (IAT) education and getting youth outdoors. The ambitious Think Outside program was launched.

“They approached us,” which is atypical, said IATA Outreach and Education Manager Amy Lord, “because they know we get things done.”

Since September, Think Outside has enabled over 2,000 students from 30 schools across the state to hike an average of two miles on the IAT. Over 50 schools and 4,000 children are already registered for the spring portion of the program, running from April until July 31, 2020.

Since the 1,200-mile trail runs from Door County, passing near Wisconsin’s largest cities, Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay, dips to the center of the border with Illinois and winds its way north through the middle of the state, before ending at the border of Minnesota near the Twin Cities, both rural and urban schoolchildren are targeted for the opportunity. Others will hail from Chicago, Ill. , Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.

The program includes a classroom presentation by an IATA staff member or volunteer, a hiking field day led by either an IATA representative or the teacher and transportation reimbursement. Teachers must submit a simple summary report along with the transportation invoice. IATA supplies a “toolkit,” offering teachers lesson plan activities, information on geologic features, and a map and terrain description of the suggested IAT hike location.

Lord has led numerous classroom presentations ahead of hikes. She explains the effects of the receding glaciers on Wisconsin topography, how the IAT allows people to connect with the last Ice Age, that Wisconsin is only one of 11 National Scenic Trails, and the longest trail entirely located in one state, as well as tips for a successful hike. There is also time for Q&A.

“I begin by asking kids how long they think the trail is,” Lord said. “Answers are sometimes across the board, from five to 5,000 miles.” When she explains the footpath is over 1,000 miles, Lord said, “Eyes get really big and the follow-up question is always, ‘Are we going to hike all of it?’”

Kids learn terms for glacial features, such as kames, eskers, drumlins, kettles and erratics -- rocks transported by the glacier -- she said.

On November 21 and 22, two groups of fourth graders from West Middleton hiked a portion of the IAT which passes through Indian Lake County Park. The first group experienced relatively warmer temperatures, wind and light rain. On that day, Ice Age National Scenic Trail superintendent Eric Gabriel joined the children, pointing out kettle lake topography and trailside erratics and donning his iconic park service hat for photo ops. Significant wind gusts prevented him from wearing it.

“Those kids were amazing,” Gabriel said. “Very hardy, and not a single complaint about the challenging weather.”

The next day’s group scurried along the trail in bright sunshine and very chilly temperatures, through the frozen mud imprints left by children the day before.

Fourth-grade teacher Sarah Pongratz mentioned the effect of the day upon one student, even before he’d disembarked from the school bus.

“He said, ‘Ms. Pongratz, look at that view! It’s beautiful out here.” Her nine-year-old student had lived his life within the confines of a city, she said.

The NPF grant which allowed partnering with the IATA was funded by Union Pacific Railroad and other U.S. donors.

Thus far, four Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District elementary schools have participated in Think Outside.