Woods of Wisdom

Deniese L. Zeringue  |  5/24/2011 12:04:49 AM

Project Learning Tree

Photo By: Bill Feig

Tom Miles, upper left, and Skippy Berner, fourth from left, run a drill on habitats at Project Learning Tree’s Endangered Species station as, from left, Emma Theall, Noah Blanchard, Daniel Theall, Destonie Dufrene, Emily Blanchard, Jim Barry (seated), Breoin Brumfield and Taylor Roussel watch and listen. The children were on a field trip from the St. Charles Parish 4-H.

Emily Blanchard, seated center, gets some help calculating the age of a tree from Lora Taylor, left, as Emma Theall, right, counts the rings on her tree project at the Cookie Tree learning station of Project Learning Tree.

Children are learning about nature and the environment in one of the city’s most beautiful spots, the LSU AgCenter’s Burden Center. Although many of the center’s 440 acres are dedicated to research on horticultural projects, the property also contains numerous gardens, the LSU Rural Life Museum, the Trees and Trails project and Project Learning Tree, an environmental education program designed for groups of school-age children with three to four hours of fun-filled activities.

The children, who come from clubs and classrooms from all over the state, begin the program at the Ione Burden Conference Center. After a welcome from Jim Barry, Project Learning Tree coordinator, they are “navigated” to the trails behind the conference center.

At the entrance to the trails, docents lead the group in an icebreaker activity in which children “become” parts of a tree. Students representing the heartwood, xylem, cambium, phloem, bark, roots and leaves all chant in unison the job of the part of the tree they represent. So as the “heartwoods” are chanting, “We support the tree,” the “leaves” are shouting, “We make the food.” It is all done in the spirit of great fun to show that the tree is a “factory” whose parts are all needed for its survival.

Each visiting group is divided into three smaller groups to rotate among three learning stations along the trails. The stations - Invasive Species, Endangered Species and Tree Cookies (cross sections that reveal the layers of a tree) - are all manned by experienced docents who work from programs developed by Project Learning Tree.

At the Invasive Species station, Sheila Trahan has the children compete in teams to determine which of several species are native and which are invasive. She gives the example of nutrias, which were introduced by fur traders into the south Louisiana habitat. “It was not such a good idea,” Trahan tells a group of students from St. Charles Parish 4-H. “They eat the roots of trees and vegetables with their great big teeth. They destroy levees.” Volunteer Bill Weldon, a retired physician, tells the students of an encounter he had with a nutria on a fishing trip. “He bit through my paddle with his big teeth,” Weldon said.

As the students move from station to station, “navigators” point out interesting trees, vines and flowers along the way.

At the Tree Cookie station, Lora Taylor places paper plates on the ground and has the students stand on the plates to represent trees planted in the ground. Penny Miller throws out colored chips representing water, sunlight and air — resources a tree needs to survive. As the plates are moved closer together and farther apart, the students learn how trees must compete for limited resources. “When the resources are farther apart, the tree won’t grow as strong,” Taylor explains. She ends her presentation by showing the students how to determine the age of a tree by counting the rings. “Light rings represent the growing season. Dark rings represent the dormant season,” she said. “So to determine the age, one light ring and one dark ring is one year.”

At the final learning station, Skippy Berner leads the students in an exercise to make them aware of what can cause a species to become endangered. “Habitat loss is a serious problem,” she said. “When animals lose their habitat, they are in danger of extinction.” She talks about the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti and how such events can lead to habitat loss.  Berner, a retired veterinarian, lets each student represent an animal. She then places each animal in one of three areas designated as habitats - an urban forest, the Gulf of Mexico and a lake. As she describes disasters that can occur in each habitat, she has the “animals” move to other habitats until they are in locations in which they cannot thrive. “You can see the stresses animals go through when they have to move to a new habitat,” Berner said.

After the students visit the three learning stations, they return to the conference center, where they are given time to eat. They have the option of taking a long afternoon hike through the Trees and Trails area before they leave the Burden Center.

Students and teachers have given Project Learning Tree rave reviews. The program was developed by the American Forest Foundation to increase students’ understanding of the environment, to stimulate critical and creative thinking, to develop the ability to make informed decisions on environmental issues and to instill in them the confidence and commitment to take responsible action on behalf of the environment.

Forum 35, the Junior League of Baton Rouge and Baton Rouge Green were among the organizations involved in developing the Burden Center’s Project Learning Tree and Trees and Trails some five or six years ago, said Penny Miller, chairwoman of the Burden Horticulture Society. The trails for both projects were almost completed when Hurricane Gustav hit in 2008. “The hurricane tore up the trails badly,” Miller said. “But we were fortunate to get a couple of grants to help reclaim the forest.” The trails were opened in early 2010. Last fall, Project Learning Tree conducted a pilot class.

The program was recently adopted as a project of the Junior League, which is providing some funding and docents beginning June 1. Other sponsors are Baton Rouge Green, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the Burden Foundation, the Burden Horticulture Society and the LSU AgCenter.

Barry, who retired two years ago as the British Airways airport director at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, volunteers as Project Learning Tree's coordinator. “I always said that when I retired I would move back to Louisiana,” said Barry, a native of Crowley. “I started looking for things to do with my time.” He became a Master Gardener, and last fall got involved with the pilot program of Project Learning Tree.

Along with Whitney Wallace, a forester with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, and Cindy Ybos, a certified Project Learning Tree facilitator with the University of New Orleans, Barry and other volunteers worked to develop the spring program.

“I recognized on day one that in today’s world, students are not getting enough of this kind of activity with things like the television, the computer and the Internet,” Barry said. He hopes that during the summer, day camps throughout the state will take advantage of the program, which is both fun and educational.

“We’re teaching students about the environment and about animals, plants and insects that are native and invasive so they will be able to make wise decisions when it comes to environmental issues, so they can make a difference in the world,” Barry said. “We want to get the schools involved so the kids can make the right decisions about our world.”

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