Educator Spotlight: Protecting Our Prairies

Kathrina O’Connell led a cross-curricular project about human impacts on prairie life. Her sixth-grade students collaborated with each other and with field experts to research conservation and maintenance of land, focusing on their local prairie in northwestern Minnesota. They learned to hand-harvest, scarify, and plant seeds to support the growth of prairie grass.

Kathrina O’Connell is a sixth-grade teacher at Lake Park Audubon Elementary in Audubon, Minnesota. Photo by Jeremy Albright

Your National Geographic Educator Certification capstone project focuses on prairie maintenance and conservation. What activities did you do to guide students through this project?

All the activities communicated the importance of getting outside, into nature’s classroom, and protecting the valuable elements of our planet. A big part of the project was literally taking our learning to the prairie. In addition, students read National Geographic articles about the prairie and land conservation. They practiced critical-reading skills and analyzed the content with classmates. The readings and discussions strengthened the learning that occurred outside of the classroom.

Students also learned about one of the special animals that makes its home on the prairie: the prairie chicken. As a way to integrate art into reading and science, students created prairie chicken artwork to conclude the project.

Student drawings of prairie chickens
Kathrina’s students drew prairie chickens as part of their study on prairie life. Photo by Kathrina O’Connell

How did you incorporate partnerships and field trips into your prairie project?

I work at a small Title I school in rural northwestern Minnesota. It’s important to us to provide students with learning opportunities they wouldn’t normally have, often through grants or partnerships. For example, for this project Audubon Dakota and US Fish and Wildlife Service Detroit Lakes provided classroom and field experiences with experts. Going out into the prairie provided an extension of what we learned in the classroom and helped students gain a deeper appreciation for nature.

After learning about native Minnesota prairie seeds, we took a field trip to the prairie at Hamden Slough Wildlife Refuge to hand-harvest seeds from five types of prairie grasses. Then, an expert came to our classroom to teach us how to scarify seeds, which means roughing up the outer coating of a seed to aid germination. Some students shook containers filled with seeds and rocks while others scratched seeds’ surfaces. Unfortunately, when we planted the seeds in the spring, they didn’t germinate. The experts warned us from the beginning that was a possibility, and it’s all part of the learning experience.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here

What surprised you about your students’ experiences in the field?

It’s always so enjoyable to see students’ engagement and collaboration while outside in nature. Students can complete a worksheet any day, but we as educators know we need to provide them with richer learning experiences. Sometimes we might worry that it’s too much to take students out of the classroom; we worry how they will behave. However, I’ve noticed that students who have behavior issues in the classroom are sometimes our best leaders when we go out in the field.

A student looks at prairie lands through binoculars
Students observed wildlife while on a field trip to the prairie. Photo by Kathrina O’Connell

What is the most important message you hope students took away from this project?

My goal was to instill in my students the belief that people from a small town can have a big impact. I think people in rural areas often underestimate their ability to make a difference. I want to demonstrate to my students that their actions matter. Hopefully, they finished this project feeling empowered to make positive change in the world.

How has this project influenced your school?

It motivated me to bring the prairie closer to our school. Even though the prairie is only 1.5 miles away, our sixth graders have typically been the only ones to take field trips there.

I’m also working to coordinate more nature-based learning on our school grounds. We are partnering with several organizations, like the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society and Longspur Prairie Fund, to expand our school’s pollinator garden. The sixth graders will be guiding our school’s 400 students to germinate and plant Minnesota native wildflowers and grasses on school property. This will create a pollinator habitat that is accessible to all of our students for future learning.

Students walk through the snow-covered prairie
Students explored the prairie during winter. Photo by Kathrina O’Connell

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Interested in joining Kathrina as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at NatGeoEd.org/Certification.

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