Nature on Wheels brings field trips to students

Laura Tichy-Smith
Special to Coastal Life

A group of home-schooled children circulated through a series of activity stations underneath a park pavilion.

Carrie Nameth of Nature on Wheels shows a home school student how to record observations into her nature journal.

Carrie Nameth, the director of education and exhibits for Nature on Wheels, had set up a variety of natural items, such as feathers, along with nature identification guidebooks and art supplies so that the children could create their own nature journals to take home.

A girl came up to Nameth and said she had caught a lizard, but she was surprised when its tail came off and the lizard ran away.

“It was still moving,” the girl said to Nameth about the tail.

Carrie Nameth of Nature on Wheels uses a bird puppet to teach a group of home school students the names of parts of bird anatomy.

“What does that do for the lizard?” Nameth asked. “Why would it do that?”

“To protect it?” the child replied.

“That’s right,” Nameth said. “It’s to protect it because, if a bird is trying to catch it, it drops the wiggling tail and hopefully the bird goes after that while the lizard gets away.”

Based in Estero, Nameth and her partner, Kim Pierce, bring nature field trips to the classroom and other locations throughout Southwest Florida.

The pair of experienced nature educators provides tailored programs about the natural world for “pre-K to gray” at preschools, schools, youth groups, faith-based organizations, libraries, businesses, retirement communities and community festivals.

“In our previous employment working in environmental education (at the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium), we saw the amount of field trips drop drastically each year, and we saw the amount of exposure that kids were getting to the natural environment — those opportunities —were becoming fewer and fewer,” Nameth said.

Reaction to school budget cuts

She said the pair observed as budget cuts dismantled the School District of Lee County’s award-winning environmental education program, which she said dropped from seven full-time employees to one, and wondered what they could do to help counter the problem.

“We’ve slowly watched the different aspects being taken away from the kids — and they don’t even know it — so we thought there’s still got to be an option where we can get them engaged with the environment and involved with their natural surroundings without the large cost that teachers are facing,” Nameth said.

“When a class goes on a field trip, you have the busses, the chaperones, the lunches, and the admission to the facility, so our idea is that if we come to you, we’ve saved you all of those costs and all you’re paying is the smaller admission fee. With the way we’ve set up the program, we can do two or three grades so that it is cost effective but still hands on.”

Nature on Wheels can bring not only natural items, teaching resources and materials for hands-on projects, but they can also bring a variety of live animals to their programs.

Nameth said the pair owns or has access to borrow (through her job with the Imaginarium in Fort Myers) animals such as a skunk, a hedgehog, and a variety of snakes, lizards, salamanders, frogs and toads.

Live animals

“The fact that we have live animals that we can bring in is a big thing,” Nameth said. “Most science teachers might have a snake or lizard in their class, but when you start to bring in things like a skunk or other live animals, that adds a another whole dimension to the program.”

Nature on Wheels offers a wide variety of programs on nature topics — such as insects, plants, water resources, or using observational skills — and adjusts the programming based upon the age, needs and interests of the audiences.

Nameth said they have even facilitated a special-request program strictly about venomous snakes and insects that a lawn-care company wanted as a safety presentation for its employees.

“Carrie can take it up a notch, but she also knows when parents have a discomfort with reptiles,” said Lynda Mastronardo, who books Nature on Wheels programs for her son’s home school co-op group. “She’s good at reading the audience, and she also makes learning so much fun.

“She can get to the kids’ level,” Mastronardo added. “One of her classes is “grossology” — the grossest things you can learn about nature — and she makes it a fun learning class. The kids were like, ‘Eww, that’s disgusting,’ but they were delving right into it.”

While school budget cuts have affected many programs viewed as extra-curricular, such as field trips, the programs helped children develop the hands-on and observational skills critical for performing the science end of the much-touted STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“You’ll find at so many schools that they test great in their technology, reading and math, but their science scores are always lacking and lower, and there’s a reason,” Nameth said. “We’re trying to fill the gap in the funding while filling the need for these programs. I would much rather get the kids out on a hike in the woods or take them to the beach, but it’s not realistically an option for all schools or classes. This is a more affordable way to still get the kids to experience and make the connection with the natural world and get them thinking outside of their video games and movies.”

Connect with this writer: @LauraTichySmith (Twitter)


What: Nature on Wheels

Phone: 464-8776