By SHAHEEN KANTHAWALA
Capital News Service
LANSING — Wheeling big boxes of skulls, feathers and posters into a classroom and exciting children about nature in the Great Lakes region is the best part of the job, Jeff Dykehouse says.
As curator of natural history at Mackinac State Historic Parks, Dykehouse visits an average of 50 schools within 75 miles of Mackinaw City during the course of a winter. Most students involved in the Water, Woods and Wildlife program are third- and fourth-graders.
“I try to convince these kids about how lucky we are to be living in the Great Lakes area with all this clean, fresh water we take for granted,” he said. “I tell stories and give examples about when people who are not from Michigan come here and are amazed at the varieties of plants and animals we have.”
So far this winter, he has visited a number of elementary schools including, Shay, Central and Ottawa in Emmet County; Rogers City in Presque Isle County; Pickford and St. Ignus in Mackinac County; and Cheboygan Eastside, Bishop Baraga and Onaway in Cheboygan County.
Showing artifacts while jumping around like a child himself excites the children about the program and encourages them to care about natural history, Dykehouse said.
Presentations vary according to the curriculum of the classes. And he said it excites students that someone in addition to their teachers thinks that what they learn is important.
“The missions of the program include getting across the message of the Mackinac State Parks – that we’re here to teach people and protect the cultural and natural history of the parks –and getting the value of natural resources across to the kids so they can continue to enjoy it and protect it,” he said
His agency administers attractions on Mackinac Island and in Mackinaw City: Fort Mackinac, Mackinac Island State Park, Historic Downtown Mackinac, the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, Michilimackinac State Park, Colonial Michilimackinac, Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse.
Dykehouse’s biology background helped him develop the program about 17 years ago.
“Other similar programs existed which were led by historians and archeologists and talked about the history of our sites,” Dykehouse said. “Those guys were having all the fun. So being the only biologist on staff, I decided to design something similar with natural history.”
This education outreach program reaches about 8,000 students a year.
That means reaching more than 180,000 children so far, said Steven Brission, chief curator at Mackinac State Historic Parks, “We hope to continue it indefinitely.”
The program goes hand-in-hand with the Michigan Grade Level Content Expectations, said Sue Gimble-Crandell, who teaches third grade at nearby Cheboygan East Elementary School. Her students study the habitats of local ponds, the Great Lakes, forests and food chains.
Dykehouse brings those lessons alive, Gimble-Crandell said. “He talks about the watershed, passes around models of the animals, which really brings it home for the students.”
Dykehouse said, “I hope to bring awareness to these kids so that they would want to preserve and protect these natural resources and wildlife in the future. I want them to know about nature and not fear it.
“What would be the point of preserving a forest or a bird or a watershed if it’s something I wouldn’t care or know about?” he said.
Shaheen Kanthawala writes for Great Lakes Echo.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.