January is a cold month in Wisconsin. Very cold. Recently on a day where the temperature hovered between 0◦
F; 29 students from Deforest Area Middle School ventured to the nearby MacKenzie Environmental Center for a day of outdoor education.
The physical education department of the Deforest Area Middle School has been offering a ski trip for students in grades five through 8 for a number of years. However, there always seemed to be a small group of kids who didn’t participate in the ski trip. “I wanted to create an option for kids who chose not to ski,” says David O’Keefe, physical education teacher at the school.
O’Keefe turned to the MacKenzie Environmental Center for assistance. Only about 20 miles away from his school, MacKenzie is a non-profit outdoor education facility operated and managed by a partnership between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
Open to the public as well as being well equipped for day and overnight school trips, the center includes a wildlife exhibit of animals unable to be released into natural habitats, ponds, prairies and an observation tower. Along with miles of trails, there is a permanent 19th century logging exhibit with a log cabin and sawmill, three environmental museums (check out the well preserved genetic anomalies!), and in spring—a maple syrup exhibit including tree tapping and sugarhouse.
Prior to last year physical education teacher Dave O’Keefe had no experience with geocaching. He became a student himself as the educators at MacKenzie introduced him to the rapidly growing hobby. “I really liked the positive response this trip elicited from the kids last year. They had a good time and it was a great challenge for them” O’Keefe says.
Today, MacKenzie Educator and Wildlife Technician Jenny Krause preps her audience of seventh graders for their adventure: “What is a GPS” she asks, and “how many of you know how a GPS works?” Several students answer: “it tells you where you are,” “it lets you know how to get somewhere,” “it gives you direction.” Out of the 29 students on the trip, not one had ever used a GPS. The building is filled with a taxidermist’s best work—bobcats, raccoon, badger and fox—among others—all watch silently as 29 students learn that altitude is what makes a location three dimensional on their GPS.
Krause formerly worked as an EMT in the Colorado backcountry and emphasizes the importance of a compass as well. “There are places a GPS won’t work and you have to know how to use a compass too,” she stresses.
Closing her short introduction to geocaching with the environmental principle of CITO (cache in, trash out), Krause instructs the students to get their gear on and the group heads outside. It’s about 5◦ F, (without the wind chill) but no one seems to notice. We meet in a parking lot where Krause distributes GPS units to groups of two or three students. The units, owned by the MacKenzie center are pre-programmed for geocaches that are placed when the Environmental center has a group coming for GPS instruction. (There are three permanent geocaches for the public at MacKenzie, as well.)
At once, each group fans out toward a different cache. It doesn’t take long before a group stops and exclaims “this thing isn’t working!” They are reminded they need to keep walking for the GPS to read accurately. Not far away another group is walking in circles—“Remember the three meter rule: if you’re close to your destination, start looking high and low,” Krause calls.
The excitement of finding a cache is evident on the student’s faces. “Hey, that wasn’t so hard,” and “yeah, I thought it was fun” are frequent conclusions.
Supported by a few other teachers and parent chaperones, O’Keefe agrees with 8th grade science teacher Dave Matthews who likes the program and maintains “the great thing about this trip is that the students are having so much fun they don’t realize they’re learning.”
Originally published March, 2010