Kids are fascinated with dirty, slimy, and unusual things. No wonder they are fans of T.O.A.D.—Teaching Outdoor Awareness & Discovery—an environmental education program in Marinette County that allows students to learn hands-on about the environment in their backyards.
And it all started from a single quote.
“I saw a quote from a Senegalese ecologist, Baba Dioum. She said 'in the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught,'” said Greg Cleereman, the Marinette County Conservationist and founder of T.O.A.D.
Filled with inspiration, Cleereman brought the idea for T.O.A.D. to the Land and Water Conservation Committee in 2001. After reorganization within the Land & Water Conservation Department and a reallocation of funds, the Committee approved the funds for T.O.A.D. to hire an Education Specialist and buy equipment to get started.
Amanda Kostner started out as the Information & Education Specialist, teaching twenty-six programs to around 1,500 people a year. Then in 2007, the program expanded even further when Anne Bartels took over as the full-time Educational Specialist.
“In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Now the program teaches around two hundred lessons per year, reaching more than 6,000 people. Lessons are diverse—some are held in classrooms, others in the county’s Harmony Arboretum, and some along the streams and forests surrounding schools. Bartels tries to incorporate lessons that appeal directly to kids, with titles such as Skins and Skulls, You Eat Like a Bird, and Aquatic Creepy Critters.
“I try to look at it from a kids’ point of view—when I was a kid, what did I find interesting? Hands-on stuff!” said Bartels. “I find that audiences learn better if there are tactile things involved instead of me talking the whole time.”
With the number of T.O.A.D. lessons and school visits each year, Bartels and department staff are keeping busy. In addition to class visits, Bartels organizes other environmental education events throughout the year, like Sand Lake Conservation Camp for middle school students and the county’s annual Environmental Field Days for fourth graders.
The scale and scope of the program are made possible by the county’s decision to have a full-time Education Specialist, a position not commonly found in Wisconsin.
“To my knowledge, there is no other county in the state that has what we have,” said Cleereman. “It is not something Anne does in her spare time—that is her reason for being. I wish that every county had an Educational Specialist.”
While one of the goals of T.O.A.D. is to have fun in nature, both Cleereman and Bartels hope that what students take away from these programs goes back to the original quote that started it all—a sense of understanding.
“If people don’t know or care about something, or are afraid of something, they won’t protect it. We need to educate the public, especially young people, about the need for wise conservation and use of natural resources,” said Bartels.