CARRABASSETT VALLEY – At 11 years old, Alex Ellis of Kingfield is already well on his way to becoming an outdoors man.
“I’m outside as much as I can be,” he said, adding that he likes to ride his dirt bike and snowmobile, as well as climb trees, hunt and fish.
That’s why learning opportunities like the annual Conservation Field Day, which is offered to SAD 58 and Rangeley fifth graders each year, are so exciting for Ellis. On Thursday, students turned the woods surrounding the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center into their classroom. Subjects of the day included soil, aquatics, forestry and wildlife.
“A lot of kids like the outdoors, so when we learn outdoors, it is easier to concentrate rather than being cooped up in a classroom,” Ellis said. “Today I learned about different soils, what woodsmen do in the field and about different amphibious animals. We’re also just having fun and trying not to get bit by the bugs.”
The Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation District has put on the program every May for more than 15 years. Also known as “Mini -Envirothon,” Conservation Field Day has become a way to pique students’ interest to participate in the state’s Envirothon at the high school level.
Soil and Water’s district manager and education coordinator Rosetta Thompson has been involved with the conservation day for 14 years. “It encourages students to learn about various natural resources and conservation issues,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity for kids to be one-to -one with natural resource experts in each area.”
This year’s presenters included International Paper foresters Aaron Boone and Rob Krantz, DEP biologist John Cullen, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Bob Cordes, forestry consultant Mike Kankainen and retired soil scientist Gary Hedstrom.
At the forester station, students learned about the many products made from trees. Of course, there are the obvious ones like paper, pencils, toilet paper and timbers. But did you know trees are also key ingredients in gum, Gatorade, Listerine and aspirin? Krantz explained that cellulose from wood, which makes trees stand up, also makes teeth white.
“And ever wonder why shave cream has kind of a woodsy scent?” he asked. Because trees are used in making the scent.
Many of the presenters have come back, year after year, to the Conservation Field Day.
Hedstrom, who formerly worked for the Maine Department of Agriculture as a soil scientist, has volunteered his time for 15 years because he sees the value of the program. “The students get hands-on learning here,” he said. “It’s hard to bring all this into a classroom. They can come out here and see the soil as as part of the landscape and how it affects the vegetation.”
Cullen also has been involved many years and is active in the Envirothon at the high school level. He spent Thursday looking for aquatic creatures with the students.
“It’s a chance to get out and talk to the kids. It’s kind of fun,” he added. “And they seem to enjoy it.”
Rangeley science teacher Barbara Jennings, also a 15-year veteran of the program, said the students aren’t the only ones having a good time.
“I still love doing it,” she said. “Every year I learn something new. I also get to watch the kids learning, which is always fun.”