The art of science: Local fourth-graders learn about nature journaling

ESCANABA – Fourth-grade students at the Escanaba Upper Elementary School are in the midst of infusing arts and science through a unique program made possible through the Bonifas Fine Arts Center.

Monday marked the second of three day-long field trips to Portage Point for Escanaba fourth-graders through the Bonifas Center’s new “Connecting Kids to Nature through Arts and Science” program.

The program is sponsored by the U.P. Sustainable Forest & Wildlife Fund and the Dagenais Foundation.

The main goal of the program is exposing students to an outdoor setting where they learn about the art of nature journaling and how it relates to the scientific method.

Students learn the history of nature journals, explore the history of the Point, and record their experiences through pencil, ink, and watercolors.

The five-hour long trips are designed to stimulate life-long habits of observation, writing, and artistic expression. Students also learn to develop an appreciation for the landscape.

“It’s really the Arts Center reinforcing the existing benchmarks in education,” said Pasqua Warstler, gallery and education director at the Bonifas. “What we’re doing is taking whatever the teacher is already doing…and we can use the arts activities to reinforce whatever the curriculum is. In this case, it’s scientific observation for fourth grade standards.”

With each field trip, approximately 70 fourth-grade students alternate among three different groups centered on writing, nature and art journaling, and wildlife and nature studies, while accompanied by Bonifas docents and parent volunteers.

“For this program, it’s the scientific observation right on site, so they are surrounded by their primary source – plants, animals, the weather and whatever else that site has to offer,” said Warstler.

Gregg Bruff, a retired National Park Service park ranger for Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, serves as the program’s lead instructor.

“Basically we’re just getting kids outside so they can experience their backyards and also learn about the importance of writing and drawing in their lives, and how scientists have passed down knowledge by writing and drawing for centuries,” he said. “It’s not so much about drawing beautiful pictures. It’s more about seeing things and looking at things.”

Bruff has an extensive background pairing in nature and art. He was the chief of heritage education at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for 25 years and has also presented hundreds of interpretive programs for students and adults alike.

Bruff founded the Munising Bay Arts Association and the Lakeshore’s Artists in Residence program. He also has a background as a landscape painter, graphic artist, naturalist, photographer, and four-season outdoor enthusiast.

“Most of my career has been dealing with trying to get the public, in general, aware of their surroundings,” he said. “I enjoy working with kids. Kids these days don’t get out nearly as much as they used to, and so this program is basically to get kids outside again.”

According to Bruff, the activities the students are learning through the field trips are perfect for students in grades fourth through sixth; the reaction from students in the first two field trip groups has been quite positive.

“These guys are eager to learn. They’re eager to find things. They’re at an age where drawing is really important to them, yet they’re old enough to know about Columbus and Lewis & Clark and some of the people who have written really important journals,” he said.

Bruff expressed his thanks to the Bonifas Arts Center and sponsors for supporting educational programs such as “Connecting Kids to Nature through Art and Science.”

Warstler noted the Bonifas Arts Center’s goal is to continue offering the Portage Point field trips to fourth-grade students every year and that the center will work toward replenishing sponsorships for the program to continue in the future.