Nicolet teacher named best state educator
Biology teacher moves learning outdoors, promotes environmental awareness
Glendale — Tucked behind the softball fields of the Nicolet High School campus sits a small, cozy building that resembles a sugar shack. It is Nicolet's new Outdoor Environmental Center that acts as the school's gateway between the classroom and the environment.
The center was the brainchild of Nicolet High School science teacher John Rhude, whose hope is to get students to put down their electronics and spend time outside.
Rhude's efforts and unique teaching methods have gained national recognition. The National Association of Biology teachers recently named Rhude Wisconsin's Outstanding Biology Teacher for 2013. Every year, the NABT recognizes an outstanding biology teacher in each of the 50 states.
"I was surprised. I was humbled. It was very nice," Rhude said.
Using available resources
Rhude attributes the award to the Outdoor Environmental Center that was started last year. The center will serve as an outdoor classroom and will house the evaporator students use to make maple syrup from the Nicolet School Forest as part of their science curriculum. Once complete, the building will also have tables and heaters so teachers can use it as a classroom alternative.
Rhude began teaching in Nicolet nine years ago. When he learned that the school owns five acres of forest, he set out to incorporate the natural resources into his lesson plan. He enrolled the woods in the Wisconsin School Forest Program, which provides teaching materials to educators so they can best use available outdoor spaces.
In 2011, Rhude and more than 100 students implemented the forest management plan designed by the state by cutting buckthorn, pulling garlic mustard, creating new trails, and tapping the sugar maples to make syrup. The center was a natural extension of that work, Rhude said.
More than $22,000 was raised with the help of the Nicolet Foundation. Volunteers, led by Rhude, started construction of the building last year. It is anticipated to be complete by the end of the current school year.
"I built the building, but the goal isn't to get people from the building to a building," he said. "The goal is to get kids out in the environment and hopefully the building will encourage people to do that."
An outdoor lesson plan
Though the building isn't quite ready, the woods are being utilized by teachers.
In Rhude's environmental science class, students study invasive species, conduct soil surveys and learn about animal behaviors. The students also do water testing using samples from the Milwaukee River.
Hands-on activities are important and effective Rhude says, as it encourages and excites student about learning.
In the end, his hope is that the center becomes the gateway to outdoor education.
"We are so connected to electronics that a lot of kids are losing sight of our natural environment," he said. "If kids are having less of a connection to nature they don't really understand where our resources are coming from and if you don't have a respect for that, then you can't take care of it either."
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