Can you tell the difference between the track of a beaver and a duck?
Can you identify by feel alone the tail of a squirrel or a mink?
Can you identify a fox or bear just by feeling a bit of their fur?
It’s likely that some of the Grand Island School District’s children in kindergarten through sixth grade can do all those things, thanks to a program offered at the Eco Island Nature Center.
The center – unique among local school districts – offers instruction designed to enhance students’ science classes by affording them a hands-on opportunity to get up close and personal with wildlife and plant life.
“The original plan was for the kids to get to know more about the plants and animals of Grand Island,” said Dianne Tiede, center coordinator since 1990. “As the curriculum became more demanding, we created things that would enhance that curriculum.”
Retiring in 2008 after 30 years as an elementary school teacher, Tiede has been the main force behind the center, which is financed by the school district. She works at the center three days a week. On the other two days, teachers – who have immersed themselves in a thick instruction manual devised by Tiede – are on their own with their classes.
In the 2011-12 school year, the center hosted 75 classes for two hours each. That encompasses 1,756 students, Tiede said.
Classes are tailored to what students are currently studying, such as food chains or animal classifications. Tiede arranges the schedule, which she said fills fast with reservations.
The center, housed in a former Nike Base on Staley Road next to the district’s Buildings & Grounds Department, has evolved immensely in scope since Tiede first began bringing her classes there in 1986.
“We had just one room then with pictures of plants and birds on the wall,” she said. Gradually the exhibits grew into several rooms with themes like forest and ponds.
“My husband, Mark, and I have traveled to a lot of nature centers around the United States,” said Tiede. “That’s where I got a lot of the ideas we used to establish the center.”
Much of it has been done on a shoestring budget by volunteers, including teachers and Grand Island graduates, who used their talents to, among other things, paint nature themes on murals and furnishings. Some exhibits, including a series of bird houses, were done as Eagle Scout projects. The wildlife – including hawks, deer, foxes, coyotes and owls – was donated. Some came from hunters; others were accident victims before being sent to the taxidermist. The center got state and federal permits where required.
Tiede singled out the district’s Buildings & Grounds staff for their assistance.
“They are very talented. I get an idea, sketch it out and they create it. You couldn’t buy this stuff,” she said.
One of their projects is the “Feel-It Box,” which has eight slots containing various things like a rabbit’s foot, a raccoon tail, or a turtle’s shell. Students thrust a hand through a rubber slit and have three guesses at what they’re feeling before entering their answers on a test sheet.
Nearby is a large square box filled with dirt in which students can make the tracks of various animals using molds of their paws or feet. On the wall are inked imprints of those tracks.
On a recent day, Susan Andrews’ kindergarten students from Sidway Elementary School paid rapt attention as Tiede counted the toes – five – on one track and asked which animal they thought it was.
“Raccoon,” called out one child who was proven correct as Tiede lifted a flap to reveal a photo of the creature.
“We have five toes,” said Tiede, “ so now you’ll remember which animal is like us.”
“The hands-on approach is fantastic for the kids. They get to feel each animal, and they really love it,” said Andrews, who brings her class to the center three times a year.
As students moved from room to room, they were accompanied by parents and grandparents who volunteered their time to assist Tiede and the teacher. Some of those adults recalled visiting the center as students themselves, making it a multigenerational experience.
The center also includes a nature trail, pond, butterfly and flower gardens and a picnic shelter built by BOCES students. And Tiede recently added some trees from private donors.
The school district uses the center only during the school year. The town utilizes the site as part of a three-week youth summer camp.
Eco Island might be relocated into the area that now houses the Buildings & Grounds Department, which is slated to move to new quarters behind Sidway Elementary. Those plans depend on voters approving the proposed $6.3 million transportation complex in a Dec. 18 referendum.
“Whenever I got something [for the center], I figured a way to fit it in,” said Tiede. Speculating on the possible relocation, she looked around her and, tilting her head in thought, said: “It’ll all be moved, but I think it’ll probably look different.”