North Dakota ‘classroom on wheels’ delivers environmental education for teachers

GeoFIT program shines a light on communities, cultures and ecosystems

The wheels on the bus go round and round—but it’s the teachers, not the students, who are on board, travelling to outdoor classrooms at environmental sites around North Dakota.

Every summer since 2007, the North Dakota Forest Service and the North Dakota Geographic Alliance, based at Minot State University, deliver the GeoFIT (Forestry Institute for Teachers) program.

This four-day professional development workshop has an environmental focus for elementary and secondary school teachers across the state—studying communities and culture, and their interactions with the environment.

“We provide teachers with experiences and resources that will help them incorporate environmental stewardship into their school curricula,” says Glenda Fauske, the information and education coordinator for the Forest Service.

Aboard their classroom on wheels, 50 teachers visit sites where they’ll participate in experiential learning activities, and then learn from guest speakers in a classroom setting.

These educators can expand their knowledge—studying how aspects of geology, geography and forests can work together to minimize environmental impacts and land disturbances, as well as improve and protect surface and ground water.

They’ll view rock formations and learn about the state’s geography. They’ll visit native ecosystems and analyze their impact on water quality. And they’ll walk through forests and study invasive species.

In North Dakota, teachers must renew their teaching licenses every five years, and to do so, they need six credits from a post-secondary institution, at 15 hours of class time per credit. GeoFIT provides 30 hours of classroom time and is worth two credits toward the licensing, making it a popular choice.

Marilyn Weiser, the former director of the Geographic Alliance who retired at the end of 2016, says GeoFIT arms teachers with geographic and environmental concepts that can be applied across curricula, from art to history, geography to English.

“Teachers leave (GeoFIT) with intentions. They tell us what they will do in their classrooms because of what they learned . . . and our follow-ups show that they do indeed follow through,” says Weiser.

The concept of teaching the teachers appealed to Enbridge, which awarded program organizers a $10,000 Ecofootprint grant, covering teachers’ fees to attend GeoFIT in 2016 and 2017.

“The teachers will pass on what they learn to student after student, year after year,” says Cindy Finch, Enbridge’s community investment advisor based in Duluth, MN.

“Students will hear environmental messages in different classes, from different teachers, and in different ways. They’ll develop an appreciation for the environment and learn how to protect it.”

Among the 2016 GeoFIT stops were a visit to a tree farm, nature preserve, and pioneer homestead in the northeast corner of the state. In 2017, the tour will make stops in north-central North Dakota, around Ward County. Teachers will learn how the Turtle Mountains were created on the flat prairie, stop at the Anishinabe Cultural Centre, and visit an experimental forest and arboretum.

“We’re seeing teachers coming back over and over. That tells me that they’re benefitting greatly from this workshop,” Fauske says. “When the students graduate, they’ll have the knowledge and skills to be good stewards of our natural resources.”