UI Wilderness Education Program for 4th & 5th Graders Expanding Throughout Iowa

(Radio Iowa) The University of Iowa is expanding its wilderness education program to reach 4,500 elementary school children this year, and it should bring the outdoor learning experience to more than six-thousand next year. Jay Gorsh, director of UI School of the Wild, says the program is typically a five-day field trip that takes fourth, fifth and sixth graders out of the classroom and into the woods. Gorsh says it helps kids to develop a sense of awareness and appreciation for nature.

“Most often we use the three habitats in Iowa: prairie, wetlands and woodlands,” Gorsh says. “Then regularly we have a day of outdoor skills. Sometimes there’s an Archaeology Day in there. Sometimes you might have an entire day dedicated to wildlife or a specific type of wildlife. Here in Iowa City, we have an entire day dedicated to birds, so we have an Ornithology Day.” Part of the thrill, he says, is getting kids to try things they’ve never had the opportunity to do before, like kayaking, or having what he calls a wildlife experience.

“We can use some long-handled nets along the shore of a lake or in a creek and catch some frogs or tadpoles, and they can hold those frogs and tadpoles in their hand and be able to study them,” Gorsh says. “From there we can get into some biology by having them try to determine what specific type of frog is that that they’re holding. Is it male? Is it female? How do we know?” Kids today are being increasingly pushed indoors, he says, and too many of them know too little about the natural, wonderful world around us.

“What we would like to do is kind of disconnect, unplug the kids, get them out into nature, get them away from their electronics a little bit,” Gorsh says. “Also, there’s just a lot to be said about spending a day in the woods as far as how it makes you feel. For most people, that’s a pretty relaxing experience.” The UI’s Wildlife Camps program started in 1991 and over time, morphed into becoming the School of the Wild. For many years, it was limited to the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area, but just before the pandemic, they experimented with taking the program on the road so students elsewhere in Iowa could learn about nature in their own areas.

“It went really well. The feedback was very positive from families, from kids, from teachers, so we decided to go ahead and launch this thing across the state and see if it took off,” Gorsh says. “So now, there are programs that are running in county, state, even federal parks all across the state at different times in the year.” The School of the Wild is working with 83 schools in 50 Iowa districts in 36 counties this year, and Gorsh says it’s been expanding by about 1,500 students every year.