Omaha Educator Workshop

May 21-22nd, 2017

By: Leif Nordstrom

Missouri River Relief (MRR) was in Omaha, Nebraska to host an Educator Workshop. This event brought teachers from around the Midwest, including formal and informal educators. There were eight lucky participants, each one as excited as the next to be learning more about the Big Muddy and ways to spread that knowledge to others. The two-day workshop focused on both connecting participants to the Missouri River as well as detailing ways to integrate this knowledge into their classrooms. 

Ready, Set, Omaha!

Day One

For the weekend, our MRR crew camped with the turkeys and deer at Lake Manawa State Park, outside of Council Bluffs, Iowa, settled just across the Missouri River from Nebraska-Iowa state line. The first day began bright and early Sunday. We traveled to The Narrows State Park, in Council Bluffs, to launch our boat, and then motored down-river for three lovely muddy miles to the Lewis and Clark boat landing on the Nebraska side of the river. The marina is situated just East of downtown Omaha, and the cityscape provided a scenic backdrop for the day.

Teachers gather around as Kristen begins introductions.

After setting up registration at the marina, participants began to arrive. Once everyone had signed in, Kristen, MRR education coordinator, organized us into a circle for introductions. The crew, including Kristen, Jeff Barrow (MRR executive director), and myself (Leif, MRR summer intern), provided the participants with a brief background of ourselves, followed by the educators talking a little about themselves and their reason for coming. Although the individual reasons varied, they all shared an eagerness to learn. After the introduction, we got everyone fitted for life jackets, and set off down-stream, with Jeff manning the wheel. Along the way, we made observations about the river, using “I notice, I wonder, It reminds me of…” which included some unexpected observations, such as the howl of a gorilla (a teacher later cleared this up, explaining that the Omaha Zoo was situated along the river). 

Kristen uses pictures to describe the Missouri River watershed.

Next, we talked about the Missouri River watershed, and the social, economic, and environmental factors that influence it. Captain Jeff also provided some background on boat navigation, describing the various signs along the riverbanks that are used by motorists to identify depth and current direction.  We talked about the history of the river and how it has changed over time, both naturally and artificially. Specific focus was given to dams and channels, where Kristen described both the benefits and detriments of each. 

Participants let the breeze flow over them as they take in the scenery.

We had lunch at the Narrows State Park, then motored downstream, eventually finding a chute to settle in to. While we floated along, Kristen prompted us to guess what the bottom of the river might look like. After we took off our sea legs and made it on land, we talked about the Pallid Sturgeon and participated in activities which related important information about the endangered fish. Once we returned to the boat, Kristen explained the various planning and management strategies for chutes, and how they are intended to assist the Pallid Sturgeon and other at-risk wildlife. Finally, we motored back to the marina, where we briefly reflected on our first day on the Big Muddy before departing. 

Day Two

Back to the classroom for the educators on our second day of the workshop. This time, we spent the day at Fontanelle Forest Nature Center, a nature center in Omaha. 

Entrance to Fontanelle Forest Nature Center.

Day two was spent off the river, and focused on student learning and understanding, as well as ways to integrate this information into the classroom. To begin, Kristen provided a template for what a Missouri River lesson plan might look like, igniting creativity throughout the educators for their own lesson plan construction to come. 

Creative minds fill the classroom on the second day of the workshop- educators, unite!

Then, we discussed the ways in which people learn, as well as how to promote discussion and encourage students. To illustrate this, we engaged in a group activity where we used a script to act out different teaching scenarios. Each of the three scripts described a different type of instructor, with techniques ranging from teacher-centered to nature-centered, with tons of fun in-between. 

Masters of their craft, educators participate in the activity using a cookie for fake scat!

After lunch, participants began working on lesson plans of their own. Educators were asked to bring copies of one of their own lesson plans, either to edit or to add new content. Participants used the knowledge gained from day one of the workshop to craft a unique lesson plan of their own! Topics included trash reduction strategies, animal adaptations, and tree identification.

Lesson plan close-up.

Next, participants used giant post-it note paper as a canvas for their lesson plans, which they then placed on the wall around the room. Individually, educators went around the room in a 'gallery walk activity', observing their colleagues work, and providing comments for praise and potential improvement by placing a post-it note on the lesson plan. 

Educators provide constructive feedback to one another.

To conclude our day, we gathered outside to discuss what we learned. As a whole, participants appeared to hold a deeper connection to the river when we ended than when we began. Some claimed that they would seek ways to incorporate more place-based learning into their classroom, while others reveled in the sheer complexity of the river and its many accompanying ecosystems. One permeating theme: the combination of joy and excitement that comes from being on the river. Using the Big Muddy as a vessel, we explored the complexities of student learning and understanding, while developing foundational knowledge of the river itself and its many influencing factors.

The group gathers for one last time before departure.

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