By Hazel Stark
The recent cold snap in Downeast Maine didn’t stop a hardy group of 7th-graders from Narraguagus Jr/Sr High School from heading outdoors with Maine Outdoor School in early March! Despite strong winds and subfreezing temperatures, they bundled up and headed outside to consider: how do animals stay warm in winter?
Tasked with leading the group to a spot outside where they might find evidence of animals, a student in the morning class took the group to a quiet open area, half surrounded by woods. Just as they arrived, a red squirrel ran by and climbed a nearby tree—animal evidence indeed! In the afternoon, a student with the same quest took his group to a more open part of the field that was also bordered by forest. Here, they immediately saw deer tracks crisscrossing the spot. This experience quickly showed them the importance of edge habitats—those areas between forest and field that they have right in their schoolyard.
Next, students spread out to find and identify any other indication of animals that are active in the winter. They found deer tracks and scat, bird nests, partridge scat, and human footprints! They considered what adaptations all these animals have to keep them alive in the winter. Their brainstorm led them to conclude that insulating themselves with dense fur coats and spending time underneath deep, fluffy snow or other sheltered areas are important strategies that help animals stay warm. They also realized that producing their own heat by eating and burning proteins and fats also allows animals to stay warm.
With those important winter adaptations in mind, students transformed themselves into carbon molecules and journeyed their way through the Carbon Cycle. Through this interactive game, students learned how carbon serves as a building block of all life, making staying warm in the winter possible.
Lastly, these 7th-graders specifically considered a strategy unique to humans that helps us stay warm in winter: making heat from fire. They discussed the differences between burning coal and burning firewood in terms of the impact on the carbon cycle and the environment in general. They concluded that burning firewood is a better choice than burning coal, as it does not introduce too much extra carbon for the Carbon Cycle to handle. In a written evaluation about what they learned at the end of the program, one student wrote “that something as simple as coal and firewood could determine a greater impact to our environment.”
When asked about their favorite part of the MOS program, one student wrote: “All of it.”