Rapids Lake Education and Visitor Center

Eastern Carver County Schools students at the Rapids Lake Education and Visitor Center in Carver.

Eastern Carver County Schools continues to expand its commitment to an exceptional, personalized approach to education in District 112. Their five-pointed star, implemented to meet learning needs for students, emphasizes collaboration and engagement with peers and learning tools.

Perhaps one of the most unique ways the district meets these goals is through its relationship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge’s Rapids Lake Education and Visitor Center (Rapids Lake) in Carver, provides an exciting way for students to get outside of the classroom and explore learning in nature.

Brian Beresford, the head of Personalized Learning and Innovation for District 112 elementary schools notes that “a strong component of student-centered/personalized learning is acknowledging that learning can happen anywhere.”

“Classrooms can feel confining and often compel us to chop learning into pieces: math, science, language arts, etc. Fieldwork at Rapids (Lake) and within other nontraditional learning environments encourages immersive learning, where subjects blend together: observing nature; writing about the sights, sounds, and smells; counting the variety of birds; engineering solutions,” Beresford explains.

This out-of-classroom experience started about 10 years ago out of chance and location.

Rapids Lake was built within the school district’s boundary, and staff soon approached East Union Elementary School for a possible partnership. From that point on, the relationship developed to include partnerships with all eight District 112 elementary schools.

Cortney Solum, the environmental education coordinator for the wildlife refuge, notes, “Students get an opportunity to experience nature first-hand. Often times, without realizing it, students practice skills they’ve learned in the classroom and apply their knowledge outdoors. They are measuring plants, identifying tracks and writing about their observations. And as an added bonus they are creating a connection with nature and falling in love with the outdoors.”

The enthusiasm for learning at Rapids Lake is evident when talking to students. For students, going to Rapids Lake is a more exciting and fun way to learn. One student commented that “I feel like this is a real classroom to learn about science, so it feels like school, but it is more fun than school.”

Many of the students loved the nature walks where they went out on the trails and learned about the habitat provided by the wildlife refuge.

Another student mentioned, “I don’t really like school, but I like coming here.”

Teachers who have taught at Rapids Lake have become advocates for continued use of the center for students. Rebecca Janes, a first-grade teacher at Victoria Elementary School commented that “the ability to experience the outdoors and nature keeps every student, and myself, engaged in learning.”

Teachers and students alike are able to engage in learning by using equipment such as microscopes and snowshoes to enhance learning beyond the typical textbooks and worksheets.

Solum explains that Rapids Lake has lesson kits prepared for dozens of activities aligned to the district’s standards, ranging from the water cycle to birds and animal tracks.

Anna Edlund, the gifted services facilitator for Bluff Creek Elementary School, has been a major advocate for the continued growth of the partnership

“When kids learn from their experience at Rapids Lake, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also able to benefit,” commented Edlund. “The mission and vision statement for the Fish and Wildlife Service for working with children is very similar to the five-pointed star that we use of personalized learning in Eastern Carver County Schools.”

Eastern Carver County Schools is hoping that the partnership with Rapids Lake can expand to include middle and high school learners in the future. Beresford explains that he hopes to see students spending a portion of their week or year studying at the facility.

Community members should note that Rapids Lake Education and Visitor Center is not only for student use. The center is open to the community all year round.

Summer hours at the visitor center are 9 a.m.-3 p.m. through Labor Day. Schedules for all of the free events at the wildlife refuge, including activities such as guided hikes and workshops, are available online at www.fws.gov/refuge/Minnesota_Valley/Events.html.

This article was written by recent graduates Anna Schwendinger and Lizzie Williamson as part of the 21st Century Issues Capstone program at Chanhassen High School.

Community Editor

Mark Olson, the Chaska and Chanhassen community editor who has worked in Carver County for 20 years, makes any excuse to write about local history. In his spare time, Mark enjoys perusing old books, watching blockbusters and taking Midwest road trips.

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