Why I Teach Outside

By Naturalist Abigail Stone Lauer

In my current role as an Interpretive Naturalist for Dunes Learning Center, I love my daily interactions with local schoolchildren and their teachers. My passion for the outdoors and environmental education is rooted in having attended summer camp myself. When I was seven, I went to an overnight camp in northern Michigan, which was my first experience away from my family. I learned an important lesson about independence in the outdoors -- how to be adaptable in new environments and challenge myself.


My first mentor in nature was one of my counselors. Ethan was a person that I looked up to from a young age. He had a way of connecting to each individual camper and sharing his personal passion for the outdoors in a wholehearted, genuine way. Eventually, I ended up working at Camp Lookout and falling in love with nature because of mentors like Ethan.


Spending time outdoors has helped me to stretch myself and grow in ways I had not expected, particularly getting out of my comfort zone. This has become my mantra and I learned it from my camp counselors, mentors, and family. When I was in college deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up, I realized I am happiest in nature and working with children. I teach students what I have learned from all of the people who have influenced me to this day.


As my time as a Naturalist at Dunes Learning Center comes to an end, I think of how formative this experience has been for me. During the last year, I have spent every day with students, facilitating hands-on education through the natural world in a safe and positive learning environment.

Each naturalist gets a project during their year at the Dunes Learning Center. My project is the Naturalist Notes section on our website. Every month, I get the chance to read and send in stories from the trail including amazing experiences my co-workers and I have had. I have been working on my own Naturalist Note for a while, and wanted to share why I chose to be an environmental educator. For me, it’s simple: my classroom is outside, it’s hard to beat, and someday I hope to have an impact on my students the way others have influenced me. Kids need nature and nature needs kids.


Abigail Stone Lauer


Indiana Master Naturalist Training

By Naturalist Allie Moskal

I started my journey at the Dunes Learning Center in June of 2018 and have grown tremendously as an Interpretive Naturalist. The majority of my knowledge about the incredible ecosystems here in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore have been through professional development and trainings at work. DLC provides all new naturalists the opportunity to participate in the Indiana Master Naturalist (IMN) program. IMN is a hands-on learning experience designed to educate environmental enthusiasts about Indiana’s natural resources. Upon completion of the classes, final exam, and 30 hours of environmental volunteer work, participants earn a certificate.


The class met at Gabis Arboretum in Valparaiso for class every Wednesday over the course of three months. The classes covered environmental topics including botany, ornithology, amphibians, and wildlife rehabilitation. All of the courses have provided me with new knowledge that I’m able to incorporate into my interpretive hikes at DLC. Having the opportunity to take these courses has reignited my passion for the environmental sciences.


Wildlife Rehabilitation was my favorite class. Local certified wildlife rehabilitators brought wounded animals in and talked about how we can help wildlife in emergency situations. I had the opportunity to hold an alligator and corn snake, pet a tortoise, and observe a red tailed hawk. I was overjoyed interacting with these incredible wild animals. This class reminded me of my passion for animals, something I hope to turn into a career in the future.


Botany of trees was another fascinating class that I was able to immediately apply to my lessons at work. The day after class, I led a group of students on a hike through the oak savannah. We found blue spotted salamanders and puffball mushrooms, but the best part was their interest in trees! The students had lots of questions about trees, all of which I was able to answer. We identified, discussed the life of deciduous trees, and counted the rings on several fresh cut trees. I could feel the enthusiasm from the students. I always look forward to learning new information that will help me improve my skills as an Interpretive Naturalist.


Allie Moskal


Winter Ecology and Grumphet Shelter Building

By Alana Murray, Senior Naturalist

Sitting inside on a cold winter day with a cozy blanket, some hot chocolate, and a fire blazing is the only way to spend winter. This mentality seems to be common among many people during this time of the year. However, here at the Dunes Learning Center, every day is a great day to be outside! During the winter, students come to campus for a unique outdoor experience and learn about the different ways animals survive the harsh conditions of winter. Winter provides many obstacles for animals trying to find food, water, and warmth. Students learn first-hand the specific adaptations animals possess to combat these obstacles.

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For example, one of the student activities is caring for our grumphets. Grumphets are tiny little organisms that “grow” only at Dunes Learning Center. These organisms live in test tubes full of water and enjoy staying warm. Students are tasked with the challenge of building a shelter to keep these tiny creatures at a temperature warm enough for them to stay happy. Using sticks, leaves, pine needles and a lot of imagination, students dig into their creative sides and construct homes for their grumphets.

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The goal is to keep the grumphets warmer than the one left out in the snow without a shelter. Many students come up with creative ways to keep their grumphets warm. Digging holes in the ground, using already existing structures, or imitating bird nests are some ways students have constructed shelters. Many like to imagine different rooms in their shelters, speculating that their grumphets would enjoy a living room, a large dining room, or even a nice blanket for their bedroom.

There is no limit and no wrong way to go about it, but each naturalist tries to remind the students what elements the grumphets need protection from such as the rain, wind, and snow. Students become extremely invested in learning the outcomes of everyone’s shelter and who was able to keep their grumphet the warmest. After determining the success of everyone’s shelters, students discuss the different ways that their shelters can trap heat to keep their grumphets happy. As a group, they brainstorm ways their shelters could better keep their grumphets warm and how animals in the dunes might build their own shelters to keep warm. Learning about animals in winter teaches students that there is still lots of activity, even during the cold seasons. Even though it is cold, life does not stop here in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore!

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Alana Murray

Senior Naturalist

The Fossil That ALMOST Got Away

By Naturalist Carlos Tellez

During the summer, naturalists have time to plan some of their own activities, so I often talked about fossils. It was really neat because I got to show off my personal fossil collection. I have collected many fossils over the years, and the kids were interested in learning a little bit more about them. I would let the kids pass around the different fossils and minerals (such as calcite) that make the fossil.

One day, I was showing off my favorite fossil, a trilobite, to a group of kids. This trilobite has two pieces that come apart. I gave two pieces to the kids, but once it came back to me, there was only one piece. I WAS SO SAD - I thought I had lost my favorite trilobite piece! We spent ten minutes trying to figure out who had the piece last and how it had disappeared. We searched that area from top to bottom until we found it. It was an emotional rollercoaster, but at the end of the day, one of my funniest, most memorable moments during summer camp.

I was inspired by a student to draw a comic to illustrate this story. I would ask students to write in their journals, and one boy would always doodle on the side of his worksheets. I asked him to hold off on doodling and work on the assignment. As I was talking with him, he got more into his doodle and was hiding it from me. So, I told him to show me the drawing. He had drawn a picture of me and I thought it was hilarious. This lead to my idea for the comic strip.

This is a trilobite!!! My favorite fossil!!!

This is a trilobite!!! My favorite fossil!!!

Here! Pass it around. Trilobites are the first Predators.

Here! Pass it around. Trilobites are the first Predators.

Alright! Did everyone look at it? Wait, where did it Go?

Alright! Did everyone look at it? Wait, where did it Go?

Oh no!! We have to find it!

Oh no!! We have to find it!


Carlos Tellez


Crafting a Connection

By Naturalist Ben Sehl

Dunes Learning Center supports professional development for the naturalists in many ways, which feeds directly into the quality of programming that we provide for students. In just a few short months, I have been able to attend this year’s Environmental Education Association of Indiana (EEAI) conference, a 10-week Indiana Master Naturalist (IMN) class and a weekend fungus workshop; all paid for by the DLC. Not only are these interesting and valuable opportunities for me, but I can use what I learn to improve my teaching methods and the depth of information that I include in my programs.

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At the EEAI conference in September, I attended an especially impactful talk given by a primitive skills instructor. He focused on making fire by friction with a fire bow and the steps involved in crafting the bow, including carving multiple pieces of wood and making a natural rope. Both the process of making the bow and the fire bow itself have fit perfectly into our Walk Through Time hike. Native peoples like the Potawatomi, who are included in the program, crafted fire bows and other tools using only materials gathered from the land.

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The informed gathering and crafting of tools is an important skill that has unfortunately faded from general knowledge. I have been able to engage students in that living history by teaching them how to craft a rope using only natural materials. The process starts with the students gathering dried stalks from a stinging nettle plant and ends with a sturdy rope that they can take home and even wear as a bracelet. This activity not only connects the students with an ancient tradition of tool crafting but also provides a hands-on example of how people interact with and use resources from the natural environment. The students learn that stinging nettle is a nutritious edible plant as well as a useful raw material. It is just one example of hundreds of plants that can be used as medicine, food, or tools. At the end of the program, they have their rope bracelet as a reminder of what they learned.

Natural rope bracelet, made from stinging nettle fibers

Natural rope bracelet, made from stinging nettle fibers

Teaching students to make their own tools is a hands-on way to connect them to both history and the environment. This connection is increasingly important as we continue to lose touch with how our use of resources affects the land that we live on. It is important to reach students in creative and interesting ways. Dunes Learning Center encourages us as naturalists to be creative and pursue new information and techniques that will make meaningful impacts on our students.


Ben Sehl


Fall Conference Reflections

 By Chief Naturalist Anthony Escobedo

Each year that I attend conferences, I always gain something new: a new teaching technique, a new plant I’ve learned to identify, a new friend. This year I was fortunate to attend two conferences, the Environmental Education Association of Indiana conference at Camp Mack in Milford, and the North American Association of Environmental Education in Spokane, Washington.

At the top of Spokane Mountain

At the top of Spokane Mountain

One recurring topic at both conferences was the importance of hope and positivity in chaotic and stressful times. That message really resonated with me. Seeing all the different people doing amazing things all over the world, you have hope. Hope that everyone will have an opportunity to have a profound experience in nature and that one day people will see themselves as a part of nature.

While in Washington on a field trip up Spokane Mountain, I met Jenna Gatzke, who is the Coordinator of the Prairie Springs Environmental Education Center in Wisconsin. I was surprised when I found out that Jenna began as a Dunes Learning Center Naturalist! Her DLC experience is what inspired her to do this kind of environmental education work. It’s great to learn that the next generations of environmental educators are arriving through groups like Dunes Learning Center.

Jenna Gatzke and Anthony Escobedo

Jenna Gatzke and Anthony Escobedo

All in all, the greatest part I took away from this year’s conference wasn’t something new; rather it was a renewal. The renewal of inspiration to continue to do the life changing work that we do everyday at Dunes Learning Center, a renewal to continue to inspire people to imagine, question, and explore. My insatiable desire to connect people to their environment is now stronger than ever, and I’m so grateful to be with an organization like Dunes Learning Center.


Anthony Escobedo

Chief Naturalist

(In character during the Walk through Time)


By Naturalist Megan Harrison

Last month we had the pleasure of teaching Highland High School’s environmental science class. These juniors and seniors completed hikes through jack pine forests, dunes, deciduous forests, and of course, the beach. After learning about the ecology and succession in the Indiana Dunes, naturalists and students headed to the Little Calumet River for Riverwatch. Hoosier Riverwatch is a program that utilizes citizen participation for local water monitoring efforts.

The Highland environmental science class has experience monitoring water quality, but they had a new and very exciting observation: a BEAVER! Our group was busy sampling macroinvertebrate insects when the much larger beaver stole the show. This close encounter allowed students to observe, learn about unique adaptations, and explore their curiosity.


Despite the elusive nature of beavers, our group was able to spend a lot of time observing the beaver and his behaviors. For example, he entered the river by sliding down on his stomach. Beavers typically enter this way in the same spot every time creating something known as beaver slides. Once in the water, he showed off by swimming around the group, chewing on some snacks, and even laying on the bank to groom himself! Naturally, there was a flurry of cameras and cell phones from both the students and the naturalists but there was also time for a quick lesson on beaver adaptations. I can think of no better classroom for this lesson than the Little Calumet River!


Naturalists taught the students about many wildlife adaptations. For example, hair is important to mammals, but not usually vital for water dwelling animals. Since the beaver is both, they have two layers of fur. The first is for trapping in warmth, and the top layer is waterproof to keep them dry when they come back to shore. Like ducks, beavers also have webbed feet for swimming through their aquatic environment. Their tails are adapted for their underwater lifestyle as well. The classic paddle shape is important for steering underwater, but also provides balance on land.  For many, including myself, this was the first time seeing these adaptations at work in the wild.

As an educator, it’s very easy for me to say how interesting or important our native species are but it’s quite another to get students to actually believe it. Seeing curious teenage minds at work was one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had in my career.

Highland High School Environmental Science Class

Highland High School Environmental Science Class

I believe the best way to gain an appreciation for nature is to experience it first-hand. I have learned, studied, and even taught about beavers, but have never appreciated them to this extent until that day in the river. Our only real shot at saving our beloved Mother Earth is to encourage future generations to care. This experience could not have aligned more with the mission of Dunes Learning Center: “to inspire lasting curiosity and stewardship in nature.” Thank you Highland High School for sharing this great experience with us!


Megan Harrison


(In character during the Walk through Time)

Homecoming Celebration at Dunes Learning Center

By Naturalist Baleigh Haynes

Over the past 20 years, Dunes Learning Center has taught 120,000 kids and has had nearly two hundred naturalist interns, all as a part of our mission to inspire lasting curiosity and stewardship with nature. This year was no exception, as we celebrated our 20th anniversary of bringing nature a little closer to children’s hearts.

Celebratory Cake

Celebratory Cake

To celebrate this milestone in Dunes Learning Center history, we opened our doors with a “Homecoming” event. Everyone that has been involved with Dunes Learning Center was invited to spend an evening full of music, food, tie dye, and of course a campfire. Many friends of Dunes Learning Center, including teachers, students, campers, board members, NPS friends, and even former naturalists came to partake in the festivities. We had one very special guest attend Homecoming, one of Dunes Learning Center’s very first naturalists, Kate Boersma.

Homecoming campfire

Homecoming campfire

Twenty years ago, Dunes Learning Center co-founder Lee Botts asked Kate to be a naturalist after she finished her freshman year of college. Kate had worked with children at a nature center throughout high school and enjoyed it, so she was very interested in the position. Kate earned a B.A. in Environmental Science from Northwestern University. She then worked for Oregon Museum of Science and Industry doing very similar work as she did while at the Dunes Learning Center. Kate went on to get her M.S. in Fisheries Science and her PhD in Zoology from Oregon State University. Kate is now a professor of biology at the University of San Diego, and gives the credit to Dunes Learning Center for her career advancement, saying, “This job got me where I am today.”

While reminiscing about her time at Dunes Learning Center, Kate shared one of her favorite memories as a naturalist. “I was on a night hike with some students from Chicago. I asked all the girls to turn off their flashlights, and of course there was a lot of screaming. Once all the lights were off one of the girls looked up at the sky and said “I didn’t know there were that many stars.” That single moment is something that so many of us past and present naturalist get to share with the countless of children that walk through our doors. Kate’s closing words about her memory of that night hike is what rings true for all that have had the privilege to work here at the Dunes Learning Center, “Because of moments like those, that’s why I do what I do.”

Planetary Blues Band performing at the Homecoming Celebration

Planetary Blues Band performing at the Homecoming Celebration


Baleigh Haynes