Taking Nature into the Classroom

Gladwin High School teacher Chad Donahue lights up when talking about the projects his students are working on. And there are a lot of them.

Students are growing native plants to use as a fundraiser. Others are working together to build a better pond for a class turtle. Another student is combining art and science to sculpt elephant tusks.

“A lot of times I’m taking four or five independent study students,” Mr. Donahue said. “It works almost like a grad program, because it’s all junior or seniors.”

These are just some of the ways Mr. Donahue is bringing nature to his classroom.

“If you’re learning about nature and biology, but all you do is sit in the classroom then you’re probably not doing a very good job,” he said. “You have to be out there where it is.”

Little Forks has become increasingly involved in helping Mr. Donahue’s students get outside.

“We are thrilled with Little Forks,” said Mr. Donahue. “Probably in the last eight years or so, that’s when it’s really expanded what we’ve done with Little Forks because you have [the AmeriCorps members] and they’re coming and working with me.”

Andrea Foster, conservation outreach coordinator, has joined his classes for a rusty crayfish survey, salmon releases, and more.

“It’s been an amazing partnership,” Mr. Donahue said. “Andrea and I, we’re just bouncing things off each other all the time.”

Working with Little Forks is just one of the many organizations that Mr. Donahue has involved in his classes. He’s worked with the Department of Natural Resources, the Leon P. Martuch Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU), Pheasants Forever, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Michigan Trappers Association, the Gladwin Master Gardeners, and several local businesses.

“We’re trying to get involvement from the community into our classes,” he said. “That’s really important, because everyone gets to see what we’re doing and everybody gets a stake in it.”

Community involvement also helps Mr. Donahue provide more opportunities for his students to learn hands-on. With TU, his students raise salmon that are released in local streams. A local farm store provided feed for the chicks his students are raising. Little Forks has introduced his students to the importance of removing non-native invasive plants.

“We could not do any of the things that happen in my classes – either independently with my students or as a group – without that huge group of organizations and business that support what we’re doing,” Mr. Donahue said. “You couldn’t do it. You don’t have the funding or the expertise to do it.”

He points out that getting community organizations to share their expertise is critical to expanding the opportunities of his students. Mr. Donahue said, “I don’t know everything. The way I tell my kids is I don’t know so I’m going to pick the expert that knows and then we’ll all learn together.”

Mr. Donahue sees the value of partnering with Little Forks as more than knowledge sharing.

“Andrea has become a mentor and a good friend to many of my students,” he said. “As far as a role model, you can’t even put a value on that. They can see what she’s doing and have something to shoot for.”

Mr. Donahue’s community-focused and nature-based approach has had a lasting impact on his students. Several have become biologists and foresters. Past students have moved on to the medical field, environmental sciences, or even agriculture.

“Over the years we’ve had lots and lots of students who get their start here and they can get a lot of good hands-on experience that they wouldn’t have gotten if we had stayed in all the time,” said Mr. Donahue. “That’s really helped fan that fire for them. It also makes them really attractive to wherever they are going career-wise, because they have practical, hands-on experience.”

Little Forks is so grateful to work with such a passionate educator. Mr. Donahue’s program has grown over the years, and we hope to continue to be a part of its success!

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