Academy of Natural Resources teaches teachers how to bring Michigan's woods, water and wildlife into the classroom

Instructor and Academy of Natural Resources participants standing in river in waders.

Aug. 7, 2015

One might think, after nine months in the classroom, the last place a teacher would want to be in the summer is in school. But for the last eight years, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has been luring school teachers back to class for a week – not as teachers, but as students. 

The Academy of Natural Resources (ANR), the DNR’s conservation education program for educators, brings teachers to the Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center at Higgins Lake for a crash course on natural resources. The program is designed to help teachers incorporate the concepts of resource management into their lessons.  

women removing fish from a netThere is a long tradition of natural resources and environmental education in Michigan, which began its teacher education back in the 1940s with a program run by the Conservation Department – the forerunner to the modern DNR – in conjunction with six state universities. But the universities began dropping out, and when the DNR was split into two agencies in the 1990s, the program went over to the Department of Environmental Quality. 

Kevin Frailey, education services manager for the DNR, created the academy in 2008. Sixteen teachers attended. Since then, the ANR has expanded and broadened its curriculum. 

"Our goal now is somewhere between 55 and 60 teachers a year,” Frailey said. 

The program features seven different tracks, three of which are offered in any given year. This year, the ANR offered Nature Quest; Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) from Nature; and Forests, Fields and Fins (FFF). 

Nature Quest is an introduction to the flora and fauna of Michigan, with sessions on amphibians, insects, birds, trees and geology. 

electrofishing demonstrationThe STEM session looks at incorporating its components into natural resources management. 

“STEM is the big push nationally,” Frailey said. “Kids need to have those four components for the jobs of the future. So we brought in a lot of outside instructors to make those connections – like robotics.” 

Teachers attending STEM sessions are challenged with using those disciplines to solve natural resource-management problems, such as designing road crossings for wildlife or creating remote sensing devices to detect invasive species. 

"Engineering is laced all through natural resources,” Frailey said. 

Forests, Fields and Fins, which is the core class of the academy, shows teachers how the DNR, as an agency, manages Michigan’s resources, Frailey said. It is among the most popular of the seven tracks, in part, because it offers teachers hands-on experiences with natural resources. Instructors from various DNR divisions – Law Enforcement, Wildlife, Fisheries and Forest Resources – take teachers into the field to show the workings of resource management. FFF participants will help net fish, trap small mammals and visit logging sites. 

DNR biologist holding a crayfish for teachersIndividuals in all tracks work on a final project – with roughly five teachers to a group – and make presentations on the final day of the academy. 

Karen Shineldecker, who teaches science at Baldwin Community School, took the STEM track at ANR last year, but came back for Forests, Fields and Fins this year. She said the outdoor recreation/natural resources track is what her students are all about. 

“My biggest obstacle in Baldwin with my kids is, ‘Why is education going to help me?’” she said. “They love the outdoors, but they don’t see the educational connection to outdoors. If they realize there are job opportunities in this later in life, they can connect. 

“I think this program with the DNR is phenomenal. If you come away from this with just one thing you can introduce to your students, it’s a great thing.”  

Torrey Wenger, a high school and middle school science teacher in Bloomingdale who described the academy as “summer camp for teachers,” said the program will help her integrate what she knows into the classroom.  She said she chose FFF because she wanted to see more of how the DNR operates, and she’ll “definitely” attend the ANR again in the future.  

Most academy students are science instructors, but Elisabeth Sochacki, who attended Forests, Fields and Fins, teaches middle school English at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Belmont. She said her involvement with students in Salmon in the Classroom and in a local walleye-rearing pond project has paid dividends in language arts as well. 

“Their writing scores went up by a significant percentage,” she said. “I had kids that checked out in sixth grade. They came alive. They reconnected with the whole purpose of education and school. 

“Kids need a reason to write, a real-life experience,” she said. 

Most academy instructors are DNR staffers. Craig Kasmer, the interpreter at Hartwick Pines State Park, taught classes in all three curricula. Kasmer taught forest biometry – measuring forests in terms of trees per acre, or by height and diameter, for instance – for the STEM curriculum. He taught tree identification to Nature Quest students. And he offered a basic introduction to forestry, including visits to a harvest site and a saw mill and a lesson about forestry tools, to those on the FFF track.  

The tree ID class was especially well received, he said. 

“It’s needed,” Kasmer said. “Even a lot of biology teachers said they never really got tree ID.” 

The DNR regularly enlists the aid of outsiders to help at the Academy of Natural Resources, too. 

Jon Gray, an eighth-grade science teacher, served as facilitator for the FFF curriculum. As the chairman of the education committee for the Safari Club International chapter in Novi – which contributes $10,000 annually to help underwrite the cost of the academy – Gray says the program dovetails with both his goals as a teacher and as a conservationist.  

A former National Wild Turkey Federation Educator of the Year who also devised the DNR’s program allowing students to design the annual turkey hunting patch, Gray said his mission is to help teachers understand how they can take the knowledge they’ve gained back to the classroom. 

Gray enlisted the aid of Tom Dale to teach a session on aquatic invertebrates this year. A retired science instructor at Kirtland Community College and former education director at the Marguerite Gahagan Nature Preserve in Roscommon, Dale volunteered to help teachers net and identify insects on the Au Sable River.  

Dale said he attended a similar natural-resources class back in the ‘70s and “it was a turning point in my career.” 

“I made up my mind I was going to find a way to repay the favor,” Dale said. “This will carry over into their classrooms. I’m still talking about it after 40 years.” 

Evaluations of the academy by participants “are phenomenal,” Frailey said. “We have a lot of repeat customers. The teachers love it.” 

As a bonus, Frailey said participation in the ANR satisfies teachers’ requirements for continuing education. They can enhance their professional development while spending a week in Michigan’s north woods. 

Applications for next year’s Academy of Natural Resources will be posted on the DNR website in early October. For more information, visit