Young Explorers Unleash Curiosity at Driftless Area Wetlands Centre

MARQUETTE, IA—In the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre’s science-based, after-school enrichment program, students are getting their hands dirty. They’re picking up insects, building bridges and shelters from sticks, climbing trees and wading knee-deep into the wetlands. And that’s just the beginning.

When the Marquette-based center received a grant from the Clayton County Foundation for the Future (CCFF), an affiliate of the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, Director and Education Coordinator Alicia Mullarkey started to see this hands-on, inquiry-driven program materialize.

Microscope cameras, stream tables, binoculars, dipping nets, journals and insect-viewing magnifying glasses for students are among the purchases made possible by grant funding. “It’s the first year we’ve done this, so we’re really grateful for this grant that helped buy equipment for the program,” says Mullarkey.

Every Tuesday for eight consecutive weeks, MFL Mar-Mac schools are providing busing for 67 students in kindergarten through third grade to attend this free program. On Thursdays, 28 fourth- through sixth-graders do the same. “I feel like we hit on something people were looking for in the community, which is getting kids outside after school,” Mullarkey says. Students rush off the bus, pick up their journals and magnifying glasses, and immediately head outside — rain or shine.

Each week, lessons are based on what’s happening in the center’s acre of wetlands, grasses and woods. Over the course of the program, students observe and document changes in insects and habitats. “They check the habitats and are fascinated by what comes in and out,” says Jan Stavroplus, education assistant for the Wetlands Centre.

On rainy days, students follow the path of water and mud through the landscape to see where it’s pooling or draining. They recently took advantage of a nearby rock pile for discovering fossils. Their discoveries are led by one thing: Personal curiosity.

Unlike their structured days in the classroom, students roam freely at the Wetland Centre. “We just unleash them,” says Mullarkey. “The best thing here is that wetland, because it is the most engaging thing for kids. They can do physics experiments, biology, engineering. We’ve got migratory birds coming through. It’s really incredible what we can do with an acre of property.”

“You obviously have awakened something in these kids,” CCFF Board Member LeAnn Watson tells the center’s staff. The Friends of the Marquette Driftless Area helped secure CCFF grant funding, while other support for this popular new program came from fundraisers, in-kind donations, the City of Marquette, the school and other local sponsors, including the 3Mgives Volunteer Match program.

“Students are coming back and each week they’re telling their friends, so we’re adding more participants. We don’t turn anyone away,” says Stavroplus. One young explorer, she recalls, summed up the experience neatly: “This is the best day ever!”

“I think it’s been a huge success, and we’re really grateful for the support,” says Mullarkey. “Having this kind of funding is really critical for us to get up and running.”