Executive Editor’s View: Edit board gets a dose of nature at Severson Dells

Source: Rockford Register Star

By Mark Baldwin 
Executive editor 
Posted Jun 15, 2019 at 9:00 AM

People here love their green spaces and all they represent — the opportunity to engage with nature, the prospect of relaxation, a non-anxious gathering place, a chance to relate one-on-one with animals.

That was the overarching message received by the Editorial Board last week during a public meeting at Severson Dells Nature Center. We take the board on the road every month or so to learn what’s on residents’ minds, meet knew people and get to know corners of the community that we don’t typically visit.

Without fail, we learn something we didn’t know, and the session at Severson Dells didn’t disappoint.

One principal takeaway was the vital role played by Severson Dells and, more generally, the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County in exposing youngsters to nature — kids whose everyday lives often are circumscribed by concrete.

“One of the most extraordinary things is to be out with kids from the city on a night hike,” one man said. “Every sound is magnified.” Night hikes, which often draw 60 or more people, are one of the most common ways county residents are introduced to Severson Dells.

The relationship with children is central to Severson Dells’ mission. Each year, 4,000 students visit the Dells through school programs.

Many of the two dozen participants in last week’s meeting spoke highly of the inclusive quality of the forest preserves, which serve everyone from birders to kayakers to music buffs.

Yet Severson Dells, one of more than 40 forest preserves in the county, faces challenges, too. For one thing, not everyone has access to the forest preserves.

“Visitors aren’t representative of the demographics of our community,” said Ann Wasser, the director of education and research at Severson Dells. “Across the system, the only programs that come close are the school field trips.”

One barrier is fear: If most of your knowledge of the outdoors is acquired atop slabs of concrete, the idea of a visit to the “forest” can be daunting.

A larger challenge is transportation — a concern that has surfaced at every public Editorial Board meeting since we started them four years ago.

A large proportion of Winnebago County residents, many of whom live in Rockford, simply can’t get to the county’s green spaces — just as they struggle to get to grocery stores, jobs and educational opportunities. One potential solution suggested during last week’s meeting: partnering with existing community centers to establish nature education programs in Rockford neighborhoods.

There’s mounting evidence that climate change poses a threat to Severson Dells and other natural areas.

For instance, white pines, which were native to the region, are mostly gone, with few left in Winnebago County. Birds like the white pelican are moving north. And tick species that are native to Texas are now showing up here. (One insect, the Lone Star tick, carries a disease that can make you allergic to red meat.)

One task of the staff and volunteers at Severson Dells, Wasser said, is to record the effects of a changing climate. They do “a lot of documenting of what species are where,” she said. Particular attention is paid to “relict species” — native plants, for instance, that don’t have the ability to move.

A final takeaway from Severson Dells: Our community is fortunate to have landed Wasser, who just won the Association of Nature Center Administrators’ 2019 Outstanding New Leader Award. She’s a California native whose enthusiasm for her work is contagious and whose propensity for collaboration ought to be the model for leaders of all our public institutions.

If your neighborhood association or other group wants to host a public meeting of the Editorial Board, let us know. We’re always happy to show up.

Mark Baldwin is executive editor of the Rockford Register Star. His email address is mbaldwin@rrstar.com.

RPS 205 VIBE: Expanded science curriculum gets students set for summer

Source: Rockford Register Star, June 7, 2019

By Mary Kaull / Rockford Public Schools

Posted Jun 7, 2019 at 6:07 PM

Thousands of Rockford Public Schools students will head into summer with skills to learn about the natural world around them.

They have developed these skills thanks to an expanded science curriculum at RPS 205 and a deeper partnership with Severson Dells Nature Center. Each year, about 3,700 school-aged children visit Severson Dells for field trips, according to Ann Wasser, director of education and research for the nature center. About 70% – or nearly 2,600 students – are from Rockford Public Schools.

What they learn at Severson Dells reinforces the inquiry-based learning skills in the Next Generation Science Standards and K-12 science education at RPS 205.

At Severson Dells, Wasser and her staff began overhauling its curriculum for field trips last spring, emphasizing the scientific method – doing observations, making hypotheses and collecting evidence. For example, students might survey plant and bird species in the field and discuss how the numbers have changed over time and why. They might identify invasive species, such as honeysuckle, buckthorn or multiflora rose, and discuss how a diet heavy in these plants might impact animals.

For the last few years, RPS 205 has been on the same path, preparing students at all levels to think like scientists. It’s an inquiry-based approach to learning that challenges students to explain an idea or concept, using sets of data and their content knowledge.

High school students in RPS 205 must now take three years of science rather than two, which is one more year than the state mandate. A new required course sequence in high school covers content aligned to the national science standards, assuring all students will graduate with a foundation in the principles of biology, chemistry and physics.

But it’s about more than learning from a textbook, says David R. Allen, dean of science for the district. Experience outdoors – like students get at Severson Dells – offers a perspective that’s irreplaceable. It’s hard to convey the real world in classroom lessons about biodiversity and pollution, Allen said. Being at a place like Severson Dells allows students to learn science by doing science. Students learn to think critically about how some of the choices humans make impact animal habitats.

“If you wait until sixth grade to talk about some of these things, it’s too late,” Allen said.

Students can read about invasive plant species, but they can see their impact at Severson Dells. “We have boatloads of honeysuckle, which no matter how hard we combat it, will never fully disappear,” Wasser said. They can also see relic plant species, such as the Canada yew, which are slowly disappearing from the area.

“This is real stuff,” Allen said. “Kids don’t see that stuff enough, and we won’t get that across from their textbooks.”

815 Outside encourages locals to connect with outdoors

Source: WIFR

Posted: Fri 5:15 PM, Apr 26, 2019

ROCKFORD — Put away the laptop, ditch the smartphone and reconnect with nature.

That’s the thrust behind a countywide initiative called 815 Outside, an alliance of nonprofit and public service organizations promoting opportunities to connect with green spaces and experience nature for enhanced quality of life.

The initiative was launched during a news conference Friday at Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve in southeast Winnebago County.

“The two big reasons for establishing 815 Outside are to promote healthy living in our community and to promote the positive community economic development that can come with the large amounts of natural areas that we have,” Severson Dells Nature Center Director Ann Wasser said.

Winnebago County ranks among the unhealthiest counties in the state, Wasser said, based on a wide range of indicators such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

815 Outside touts benefits of connecting with nature in Winnebago County

Source: Rockford Register Star

By Ken DeCoster 
Staff writer 

Posted Apr 26, 2019 at 3:50 PM

ROCKFORD — Put away the laptop, ditch the smartphone and reconnect with nature.

That’s the thrust behind a countywide initiative called 815 Outside, an alliance of nonprofit and public service organizations promoting opportunities to connect with green spaces and experience nature for enhanced quality of life.

The initiative was launched during a news conference Friday at Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve in southeast Winnebago County.

“The two big reasons for establishing 815 Outside are to promote healthy living in our community and to promote the positive community economic development that can come with the large amounts of natural areas that we have,” Severson Dells Nature Center Director Ann Wasser said.

Winnebago County ranks among the unhealthiest counties in the state, Wasser said, based on a wide range of indicators such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.