Located in rural Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center has a wide variety of programs designed to get students interested in the outdoors and the environment.
The nonprofit organization, on 500 acres of land that includes prairie and forest, offers everything from an afternoon at the facility’s shooting range to an introductory course on water quality testing. In the winter, Prairie Woods offers snowshoe tracking—finding evidence of animals through their tracks or wingprints in the snow.
Kory Klebe, environmental education coordinator at Prairie Woods, says some of the most popular programs are also some of the most unique. One offering allows groups of up to 15 people to explore some of Minnesota’s famous lakes and rivers in a 10-meter (34-foot) canoe. While paddling around, participants learn about water-quality issues and riparian resource management.
Another program, “Pond Study,” can be an unexpected treat for those who participate in it.
“It’s really amazing to dig in the muck and find macroinvertebrates,” Klebe says. Macroinvertebrates include organisms such as crayfish, clams, or freshwater worms.
Dave Pederson, executive director of Prairie Woods, says his organization has a singular goal: “The common thread is connecting people with self, others, and the environment,” he says. “We are doing what we can to connect people to the great outdoors, making an emotional connection with the outdoors and the environment so they care about it. If you haven't experienced it, you are not going to care for it.”
Pederson says all of Prairie Woods’ programs reinforce its mission.
“People can be skiing, snowshoeing,” he says. “They can be doing our time-travel programs, where they step back into a day in the life of the Anders Danielson family in 1888, or they can be on our challenge course. But it’s all about making connections with self, others, and the environment.”
Prairies, Woods, History
The geography of Prairie Woods includes several ponds and 11 kilometers (7 miles) of cross-country ski trails.
“It’s a combination of rolling glacial terrain, some of it forested, some prairie,” Pederson says.
The land previously belonged to the Danielson family, who homesteaded there after emigrating from Sweden in 1871. The Danielson family continued to farm on the property until the late 1980s.
Prairie Woods was founded in 1992, and offered its first batch of programs three years later. Pederson says the facility played host to around 800 people that first year. In 2010, between 20,000 and 22,000 people participated in its programs. Programs are available for people of all ages—from pre-kindergarteners to senior citizens.
Pederson has his own personal attachment to the land at Prairie Woods. Like the Danielsons, his great-grandparents immigrated to the area from Sweden.
“My mother actually grew up on a property that is now a part of Prairie Woods, so there’s a family connection that is pretty deep,” he says.
In addition to its programs, Prairie Woods hopes to turn individuals and businesses on to renewable energy by using sustainable technology at its facility.
Pederson says the buildings are primarily heated by biomass, organic materials from plants or animals. That’s an impressive feat, considering winter temperatures can drop to -34 degrees Celsius (-30 degrees Fahrenheit). The facility generates electricity with solar panels and a wind turbine.
“We are interested in demonstrating and experimenting with how do you live in a sustainable way in this place so that others can do the same in the future,” he says. “It’s important for people in our region to be exposed to these technologies and sustainable behaviors.”
One simple but effective way that Prairie Woods uses solar heat is with an air-heating panel mounted on the exterior wall of its climbing room. When the black metal panel becomes heated up by the sun, a fan moves the warmed air into the room.
Prairie Woods also partners with the Southwest Initiative Foundation, the Southern Minnesota Foundation, and the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund on a renewable energy outreach program called the Youth Energy Summit, known as YES!
“It’s mobilizing groups of students in grades eight through 12 to get connected and work in partnership with their communities on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy conservation projects that are going to benefit their school or community,” Pederson says.
YES! mobilized more than 200 students in 2011. Their projects included setting up compost bins at school and installing solar-powered lights along trails in their communities. One team of students won a $50,000 technology grant from Samsung for their energy monitoring program.
Prairie Woods is working to improve its own facility in similar ways. In the future, Pederson hopes to power vehicles with vegetable oil or electricity rather than fossil fuels.
“For now, we are trying to get better at what we are doing,” he says. “In general, what we want to do is continue with the renewable energy initiative.”