There is a walking path that winds throughout the CMN Keshena campus, including about a half mile section that runs along the East side through a mixed northern hardwood forest, an old field forest succession, and a wetland edge. Dubbed the “Learning Path”, CMN faculty, students, and SDI staff have been working to develop the trail into an interactive education tool by utilizing this outdoor environment to generate and communicate forest ecology educational content in innovative ways. By using various electronic media, such as QR codes (that can be accessed by a smart phone, Ipad or Iphone), GPS mapping tools, digital media and story-telling, a virtual herbarium etc., we are leveraging this resource to provide interpretative information about the forest through which target audiences can engage concepts of forest ecology, forest dynamics, climate change and other topics in a non-lecture, self-directed learning style. This project will move us toward more fully utilizing this resource by taking some of the environmental education to the “outdoor” classroom. It will further serve to incentivize students, community members and faculty to use this trail as an interactive classroom to better understand forest ecology and Traditional Ecological Knowledge relevant to this place.
Among the benefits this offers are two unique advantages that are difficult to duplicate with other educational means. The first is the value of using a physical exhibit. Particularly regarding the natural world, it is often very challenging to communicate concepts without the benefit of referencing a “real-life” example. While it can be done in the abstract, a physical exhibit is frequently more effective to the point of being profound – people not only “get it”, but they typically remember/retain the concept and application far better. The second is the ability to concentrate a substantial number of “exhibits” in a relatively small area. This affords the opportunity to tailor a tour or other group activity to the specific needs of the group, as well as being able to offer a comprehensive overview in as little as a few hours’ time.
Another interesting element of the Learning Path the way information is presented. Two key variables should be considered in the design of how information is offered. The first is that ideally at least some of the information is intended to be interactive/interpretive. This allows the opportunity to “personalize” the raw information in ways such as “what does that mean to me”, that help to further reinforce the message/concept. The second is finding ways to manage the information shared to keep the experience from becoming stale. These can include changing content/exhibits, modifying the layout/design, adding new material, updating existing material, offering alternative versions (or themes), etc.
The pathway being developed at CMN currently covers the entire forested area along the East side of the campus. While the boundaries do not need to be specifically delineated, the primary site is anchored on the south end by the meeting shelter currently being built with Eagan Foundation funds, and the one hectare training plot recently installed on the north end. The walking trail that currently runs from the greenhouse to the Commons bldg. has been expanded north to connect to the training plot.
Along the trail exhibits will be established that showcase various ecological features such as 1) Coarse woody debris, 2) wetlands and water, 3) plant communities, 4) wildlife habitat, 5) aspect and elevation, 6) soil characteristics, 7) hard and soft edges, 8) insects and pathogens, 9) tree species native to this area, 10) invasive species, 11) vertical forest structure and age classes, 12) forest progression, 13) carbon sequestration, 14) phenological considerations, 15) micro-climates, 16) grasses and sedges, 17) tree form, structure, and vigor, 18) what’s the difference between a “woods” and a “forest”? Additional “stations” or exhibits will be added along the trail as the concept is expanded to feature other topics related to sustainability such as sustainable agriculture and renewable energy.
The disc golf course currently being developed along the trail is one concept that can assist in engaging people by getting them to where the resource is. Once there, the hope is they will observe, learn, enjoy and possibly share the information and experience both through the media tools provided and personal recruitment. Learning can be fun.