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Walk on the wild side

Nature trail inspires exhibits at Lakewood Elementary's makeshift museum


By Karel Holloway / The Dallas Morning News

It didn't look much like a royal ball.

There were no ballgowns, no crystal chandeliers, no string orchestras.

There were lots of kids, some earthworms and a few turtles.

Jerry W. Hoefer / DMN
Susan Campbell lets children view and touch a turtle during Lakewood Elementary's one-night transformation into Lakewood Natural History Museum.

Still, "Thursday night for me was Cinderella at the ball," said Susan Campbell. "For the first time, there was something in my head that turned out just the way I imagined. It did exactly what I wanted it to do."

Mrs. Campbell, who contracts to lead science enrichment programs throughout the area, wanted to have a concentrated nature study at her daughter's school, Lakewood Elementary in East Dallas. She already had explored a creek running along the school's edge and had received an $18,000 grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to develop a nature trail there.

Now, she wanted to give all the 700 students at the school a chance to use and learn from the trail.

The Lakewood PTA agreed to pay her $11,000 to lead the classes for the students. Mrs. Campbell spent six weeks at Lakewood working with students.

Mrs. Campbell heads a company called Science Safari that provides science-enrichment programs. She offers hands-on science programs, mostly as part of after-school programs and during the summer. She proposed the Lakewood project after exploring the creek near the school.

To end the project, the school was transformed for one Thursday night this month into the Lakewood Natural History Museum. More than 150 student-created exhibits filled the halls and the gym, displaying what the students had learned. There were also geology, bird and wild animal exhibits from area scientists.

"These kids were told if they would like to present an exhibit they could. There was no grade. There was no push from teachers. Just some reminders from me," Mrs. Campbell said.

By project's end, many of the teachers were encouraging the students, offering "Stallion bucks" (chits that can be used in the school store) and urging their classes to complete more displays than others. Students from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade participated.

The projects, based mostly on findings from the creek, ranged from the serious to the silly.

A fourth-grader discovered a fossil of an inoceramus, an ancient clam from the Cretaceous period.

Abby Jordan, 9, said when she first saw it along the creek, she wasn't sure it was a fossil. "It looked kind of neat to me," she said.

She took it to Mrs. Campbell, who assured her it was a treasure, then did some research on the Internet to identify it.

Other exhibits had castings of raccoon tracks, displays of vines and a clay model of some trees.

"Those trees are almost mythical. We call them the squeaking trees because they are so close they rub together and make this squeaking sound," Mrs. Campbell said.

Unfortunately, one of the trees will have to be cut down because it split, she said. But the exhibit will be a remembrance.

"Why does everyone like the mushroom?" said the sign on one exhibit. "Because he's a Fungi." Get it, fun guy?

And another student made a map of what is officially called the Lakewood Outdoor Learning Area from Tootsie Rolls.

"I cannot believe how the kids have taken to this project. They just look forward to going down to LOLA [the trail] and looking for different scientific aspects of what they're studying," said Lakewood Principal Herschel Busby.

"There's just a spark now for science."

He said the study fit right in with the Dallas school district's science philosophy – learn from hands-on activities, not textbooks. And it uses what teachers know – kids can learn a lot outside the classroom.

"What spawned out of this was just a lot of creativity. You had some art working with the science, some writing. It just amazed me," Mr. Busby said.

Many school districts, including Dallas, realize the value of outdoor learning and now have environmental centers. Mr. Busby said the advantage of the LOLA is that it's right there. The school doesn't have to use limited time and field-trip money to get the students to the lesson site.

The proximity also allows the whole neighborhood to get involved. Boy Scouts helped clean the trail, and Lakewood dads built wooden steps leading down a bank.

"It's a Lakewood project, and that means a lot here," Mr. Busby said.

Eventually, thanks to the Parks and Wildlife grant, the path will be covered in gravel.

Mr. Busby said the project has been so rewarding he'd like for Mrs. Campbell to come back next year for fall and spring sessions and periodic visits throughout the year. That will hinge on funding. The PTA paid for the program this year.

The program was not without some misunderstandings. Mrs. Campbell said she started by holding assemblies to tell students what she had in mind. That included telling them they would need to wear shoes with closed toes for their trail trip and that for one night the school would be renamed the Lakewood Natural History Museum.

"Well, some kindergartners went home and told their parents that there was this lady that wanted to rename the school and they would have to buy new shoes."

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