7 Ponds naturalists reconnect with students at local schools


Seven Ponds staff member Carrie Spencer encourages students to pet the furry coat of a red fox during a Jan. 28 outdoor science class at the Almont Middle School.

ALMONT — On one of the coldest mornings of the new year, a group of Almont middle-schoolers ventured outdoors Thursday, Jan. 28, to learn how animals stay warm during the winter months.

Recent indoor studies for students in Jennifer Sullivan’s sixth-grade science class have included lessons on the adaptive nature of animals who live in the wild.

Teaching the program were Seven Ponds Nature Center Naturalists, Carrie Spencer and Nicole Kopas, who managed to keep the students attention despite wind-chill temperatures of 10 above zero.

Kopas explained that the program was made possible through a generous grant from the Four County Community Foundation.

She said one of the experiments incorporated ice cubes to show how different types of fabrics can help insulate the body from the cold.

Kopas discussed how animals can utilize their skin and thick fur to insulate themselves from the elements during the bitter winter months.

Kopas explained how an animal’s increased winter food intake can result in the development of fat, yet another layer of protection during winter.

Sullivan, who alternated outdoor learning days (Wednesday and Thursday) with fellow sixth-grade teacher Lori Arnissi, acknowledged the naturalists for braving the elements to teach about 20 shivering 11- and 12-year olds.

Because more traditional field trips have been curtailed due to COVID-19 safety protocol, Sullivan described the outdoor lesson “the new normal” for both educators and students.

“During a normal year we would would have visited Chatfield School in Lapeer or Camp Lael to engage in similar (human-environment interaction) educational experiences,” Sullivan said, adding that the naturalists’ visit to the school helped fill that educational void.

One of the highlights of the program for students came when Kopas and Spencer revealed the contents of a bag containing several preserved animals, including a squirrel, duck and red fox.

Spencer noted that the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources allows Seven Ponds naturalists to legally acquire dead animals for the purpose of preserving through the process of taxidermy.

She said the preserved animals presented for viewing at the middle school can normally be found on display at the nature center.

Lessons learned

Almont sixth-graders Anna LaBroski and Matteo Burgess briefly described some of the things they learned from their participation in the program,

“We had learned about (heat) conduction in class,” Anna said. “The naturalists had us use a ‘fat bag’ to insulate one hand and the other to touch the snow directly. The hand touching the snow directly lost the most heat.

“We also talked about how running around can keep our bodies warm for a little while,” she continued, “but if we stay still, like the snowy owl, we’ll conserve energy to better heat our bodies.”

Matteo took particular note of how various animals’ outer skins and fur can protect them during the harshest of Michigan winters.

“The different kinds of fur provide different types of insulation,” he said. “We learned how a rabbit’s fur differs and changes from spring to winter.

“In the winter, rabbits and other animals grow more fur for greater insulation.”

Mutual benefits

Spencer said Seven Ponds’ “traveling naturalist” programs are mutually beneficial to students and Seven Ponds staff.

“The program allows teachers to utilize their school yards as outdoor classrooms, and us to work hand-in-hand with them to create programs that support what they are teaching in their classrooms.

“In the process we are able to create real-world applications and connections that allow teachers to deepen their students’ learning experiences, while helping create opportunities for kids to develop critical thinking skills.”

Spencer noted that the naturalists’ visit to Almont Middle School helps energize and reinvigorate Seven Ponds staff; particularly at a time when in-person connections are very limited.

“This is great for us,” Spencer said. “We really haven’t had any school groups at the nature center since the end of 2019.

“These activities keep us connected with our communities and allow us to do what we most love to do,” she added. “That is to teach young people about the environment.”

Carrie Spencer, Seven Ponds Director of Environmental Education and Chief Naturalist, can be reached at 810-796-3200 or cspencer@sevenponds.org and www.sevenponds.org.