TRAVERSE CITY — Wheels to Woods transportation grants, available to area schools, fund field trips to help students understand the layers of woodland wonders and workings.
“Every forest has a story to tell,” said Chelsea Hummon, outdoor educator at Leelanau Montessori Public School Academy. Thanks to the program, her students discovered how to “read” the forest.
Hummon values nature outings as a means to deepen science education.
“I realized children had trouble wrapping their heads around ecosystems,” she said.
But Leelanau Montessori, like many schools, is without a budget for field trips like the hands-on opportunities to discover the living forest.
Hummon accessed program funding during the last school year to connect 48 first through sixth grade students to the ways of the woods at Houdek Dunes Natural Area.
Wheels to Woods resources are available for the current academic year as well, thanks to a partnership between Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Huron Pines AmeriCorps, the Michigan Tree Farm Committee and others.
The program awards dollars for PreK-12 schools and youth groups supporting transportation to nearby forests or forestry related sites.
Five volunteer chaperones and four teachers did their homework prior to accompanying students to the 370-acre Leelanau Conservancy preserve.
Preserve forests feature ancient maples, century-old white birches and aspen communities.
On the ground, students gained understanding of ecosystems, biomes, habitats, tree classifications, cartography, watersheds, water cycles, coordinates and degrees, all through the lens of science, math and language curriculums.
“As long as you have fun and engage in hard work, reflection and inner processes, the kids take away so much,” Hummon said.
The day-long Houdek learning adventure also explored the idea of reforestation and wood products used in daily life.
Students tracked animals, scouted, built an eagle nest, drew pictures of different types of trees and learned leave no trace practices.
More than 40,000 Michigan students have benefited from Wheels to Woods awards. During FY 2022, three northwest Michigan school groups, in addition to Leelanau Montessori, visited woodlands thanks to the transportation funding.
Kalkaska’s Birch Street Elementary first-grade students visited the AuSable Institute bordering the Au Sable State Forest.
Guided by Institute experts, youngsters learned about forest animal habitats, scat, tracking and how fur keeps animals warm.
“So many kids can’t see those things unless we get them out there,” said class teacher Kristy Farrier.
Other schools taking advantage of trip funding last year included Central Elementary School in Emmet County. They visited Thorne Swift Nature Preserve. Wexford County’s Franklin Elementary students explored Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Wheels to Woods program administrator Katie Spengler said the pandemic limited school field trips during the past two years. As a result, ample dollars are available for 2022-23 school year trips. Spengler, based at the Traverse City DNR Customer Service Center, hopes more area schools take advantage of the program in the months ahead.
Public and private schools and youth groups such as scout troops, 4-H. Future Farmers of America (FFA) and church groups may apply for forest-related trip funding at WheelstoWoods.org. Spengler said applications are approved within a week.
Awards reimburse transportation costs up to $10 per student or $350 per bus or $1,000 per school per academic year. Spengler said some flexibility exists to address high gas prices or groups driven by parents.
Teachers and group leaders may enter their location at www.maeoe.com/mipines to find ideas for nearby Wheels to Woods field trips.
Spengler believes connecting young Michiganders to forests will enhance the future of the resource.
“I really hope once they get a sense of nature, they will want to protect it and become conservationists,” she said.