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DuneVersity plants the seed of eco-consciousness in middle schoolers
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DuneVersity plants the seed of eco-consciousness in middle schoolers

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Middle schoolers in the Region are slipping through the trees, going eye-to-eye with native life forms, and searching for clues in nature’s own geocaching environment. And they’re leaving their phones at home.

They’re experiencing the Dunes Learning Center’s DuneVersity residential program, three days of learning to explore the Indiana Dunes National Park using scientific research procedures.

DuneVersity, one of the learning center’s residential environmental programs, is geared toward giving middle school students the tools to be good observers and to explain the ecosystem. They get to choose what they want to learn more about by exploring the forest, wetlands, prairie, or bogs.

“It sparks their curiosity rather than giving them a broad basis of information,” says Erin Crofton, director of education at Dunes Learning Center.

While the learning center staff guides the students to a mini-research project, “there’s a lot of improv, because you don’t know what students will be interested in — fungi, trees, birds, it could be anything,” says Crofton. The dunes environment is diverse, offering a wide swath of ecosystem to explore — without Googling. “We do incorporate a little technology, like iPads with a microscope lens, but no phones are allowed. And they (the students) survive just fine,” says Crofton.

The Dunes Learning Center, a nonprofit organization at 700 Howe Rd., Chesterton, is separate entity from the national park in which it's located. “It’s a pretty unique relationship, one of only about 17 in the country,” says Crofton. The learning center receives funding from the park and fulfills many of the park's educational goals.

There is some structure to the three-day DuneVersity program: 

Day one: Students do team-building activities in small groups. “We have to grab their attention, and it helps form a relationship with staff. We help them slow down and think about what’s out there, look at the little things. That’s a first step, because for kids it’s go-go-go all the time,” says Crofton.

In one exercise students turn back to back and staff asks them to tell what their partner is wearing — jewelry, shoes. Then they turn around and see things they missed. “That helps them get focused on what’s around them before the hike,” says Crofton.

The students also learn what tools a field investigator might use, such as GPS, a diameter tape for a tree, or a dip net for the water. After dinner that evening there’s a night hike. In their groups the students discuss what interests them and they decide what they will investigate and how. “They have good collaboration, which is another skill they’re getting, though they may not realize it,” says Crofton.

Day two: Students head out to do field investigating in the park. Crofton says she sees a pattern in how the kids approach the activity. “It’s very exciting in the morning, lots of anticipation, even a little nervousness. Then they go out and hunt for what they’ll be researching. That’s when there can be a little frustration because they’re getting tired and possibly not finding exactly what they wanted. They may have to tweak their collection, but there’s a lot of problem solving and they get excited again. They accomplish something and everyone has something to bring back and report on.”

They’re learning a variety of skills including communication and social interaction, says Crofton. The students return to the learning center and after dinner they start to process the data they’ve collected from the park’s extensive ecosystem. They decide who will present what and how. When everyone’s finished there’s a campfire.

Day three: After breakfast students give their presentations, graduate, and leave. “They’re exhausted at the end but they have a good time,” says Crofton, who said the residential program is getting a lot of requests to attend.

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