Aligning Learning and Nature

A new Mighty Acorns curriculum is planting seeds for the future of environmental education and stewardship in northwest Indiana

By Amy Androff

Giggles sprouted between the tall blades of switchgrass while Mighty Acorns, hard at work, gathered seeds this fall for the prairie seed exchange.  Students worked in pairs, gently pulling closed hands over the ends of flowered spikelets to collect the seeds and deposit in paper bags.  Across the park, triumphant roars and surprised laughter erupted from another group of kids playing “The Great Food Chase,” a new game introduced by this fall’s updated Mighty Acorns curriculum.  Mighty Acorns, an acclaimed outreach program provided by Dunes Learning Center, is focused on STEM-based, experiential learning in nature. The curriculum includes a range of activities from educational play to science-based stewardship activities.                      

“The program is hands-on and inquiry based.  It allows diverse learners to study at their own pace and in their own way when they are outside in nature."

Earlier this year, teachers were learning the same game during a training for the updated curriculum organized by Dunes Learning Center Outreach Education Coordinator, Amber Horbovetz.  “This fall we trained 44 teachers and hosted 4 trainings.  Those participants will then train the other Mighty Acorns educators at their schools,” explained Horbovetz. “Feedback on the new curriculum has been wonderful,” she enthused.  “It's vibrant, easy to use and has been updated all the way down to the classroom supply kits.”

Learning about resource competition and ecosystem networks through play is just one of the new activities added. However, the basic concepts and mission, tried and true, have remained the same.  Meghan Forseth, The Field Museum Mighty Acorns Partnership Coordinator and Urban Conservation Educator, explains, “Some of the most exciting updates are that the curriculum is now aligned with Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core Language Arts Standards.  We had The Field Museum scientists and ecologists help to create content and The Field Museum School Learning Experiences Team translated the scientific information into lessons.  It now has the most up-to-date scientific information. And the curriculum is designed for any educator to feel comfortable teaching it.”

Teachers are enthusiastic about the new curriculum and what it means for Mighty Acorns to be better integrated into their course requirements.  Kelly Bennett, elementary teacher at Charter School of the Dunes, explains, “I like that everything is aligned now to the new teaching standards.  It takes down the roadblocks between teachers and the administration.  Now with the integrated standards, we are able to fulfill ELA and Math requirements while teaching Mighty Acorns content.”  With knowing nods, both Sandy Povlinski and Charlie Scanlon, Portage Elementary School teachers, agreed, “Incorporating the Mighty Acorns curriculum will be a lot easier now.”

“Mighty Acorns makes students very confident in what they’re learning.  They become little scientists.  Most importantly, the curriculum keeps them focused and excited about learning.”

Thanks to major funding by ArcelorMittal and many others, Mighty Acorns is able to get thousands of kids out in nature where learning and experience merge to create not only education but a relationship with the natural environment.  Forseth explains, “The program is hands-on and inquiry based.  It allows diverse learners to study at their own pace and in their own way when they are outside in nature.  We find that when students are out doing their field experience, those that may have trouble in the classroom, shine.”  Horbovetz agrees, “The field experience is the most important aspect of the curriculum.  It offers a lasting impression and builds unforgettable memories.  The free exploration piece is vital to students discovering their own interests in nature and fostering a lasting relationship to become future stewards.”

When asked how Mighty Acorns affects her students, Beth Dickson, a Hobart Elementary School teacher, smiled widely and said, “Mighty Acorns makes students very confident in what they’re learning.  They become little scientists.  Most importantly, the curriculum keeps them focused and excited about learning.”  

For many Mighty Acorns, the fall, winter and spring field trips are their first outdoor experiences.  Bennett recalls the wonder one student had while visiting the Ivanhoe nature preserve for the first time, “My student said to me, ‘Ms. Bennett, it’s just so beautiful!’”  The impact learning in nature has on students is evident.  Forseth agrees, “There’s something to be said about a group of students getting a chance to actively learn in nature when the leaves are turning in fall, when the snow is falling in winter, and the buds are bursting in spring.”  Povlinski described how it’s changed her students, “I think that Mighty Acorns gives kids a good perspective on where they’re living.  Some of them have never explored the woods before going on the field trips.  I like that our outdoor trip has a creek so that students can watch it through the seasons to see how it changes.  It develops their critical thinking skills.”  

Mighty Acorns not only effects the students involved but serves to instill excitement for nature in all ages.  “I see it in my classroom.  Older kids participating in the Mighty Acorns program pass on an enthusiasm for it to their younger siblings.  And it gets the parents involved in the outdoors too.  We used to have a hard time getting parents to chaperon for the programs.  But now, we have them begging to participate; they want to go hiking in the dunes, they want to learn more about the local environment too!  It’s amazing to see the evolution over the last decade, how the Mighty Acorns programming has effected so many,” says Bennett.  

After the harvested seeds were placed safely in the hands of the Outdoor Educator, ensuring that regional prairie grass biodiversity will continue into the future, students were rewarded with the much loved game “Coyote.”  As a class, they bounded through switchgrass stands and shrieked with the joy of the outdoors.  Just like the collected seeds, the updated Mighty Acorns curriculum is planting the future for environmental education and stewardship.  “With new content, up-to-date learning standards, and easy-to-use lessons, the curriculum is more relevant today than it has ever been,” says Forseth.  That’s something teachers, students and parents can all look forward to during this school year. 

Programming made possible to schools at no cost through funding to the Northwest Indiana Mighty Acorns Partnership by ArcelorMittal, BP, Dr. Scholl Foundation, Enbridge, Foundations of East Chicago, Kainz Family Foundation, Learning by Giving Foundation, Legacy Foundation, Porter County Community Foundation, Safety-Kleen, United States Steel Foundation and contributions from parents and individuals. Funding for this program was provided in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Lake Michigan Coastal Program. Major funding for the Northwest Indiana Mighty Acorns Partnership provided by ArcelorMittal.