Natural learning experience: Devils Lake fifth-graders enjoy classes at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

Classes at the game preserve teach students to identify grasses, draw trees and even mathematically determine the area of their snowshoes.

Nate Steinhaus sketchs a boxelder tree for the first page of a book that his fifth-grade class will write this year in their outdoor language arts class at Sully's Hill near Devils Lake. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

SULLYS HILL NATIONAL GAME PRESERVE — Pencils to papers and eyes scrutinizing the trees before them, Devils Lake fifth-graders sketched illustrations for the first page of the book they will write this year in their outdoor language arts class.

Language arts is one of four classes 48 Central Middle School students have each morning at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve south of Devils Lake near Fort Totten. Besides language arts, the children have hands-on lessons in science, social studies and math. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Devils Lake School District signed an agreement to hold classes at the game preserve in 2008, and classes began there in 2012.

Central Middle School Principal Dan Kaffar called the immersion program “phenomenal.”

“It’s something that gets our kids excited — getting to be part of nature and it’s applicable. Learning can’t just be in the classroom, “ Kaffar said.

The program also exposes children to the outdoors and gives them an appreciation of nature, said Colleen Graue, Sullys Hill National Game Preserve visitors services manager. Even children in a rural state like North Dakota sometimes don’t get outside and, as a result, they often aren’t aware of the nature that surrounds them. For example, when Graue once offered to let students take home the bird feeders they had made in one of their classes at the game preserve, one of the students declined, saying there were no birds in town.


Through the immersion program, the student learned otherwise.

Every morning of the school year, 48 students representing a cross section of Central Middle School fifth-graders pile onto a bus and ride to Sully Hills National Game Preserve. There, they receive environmental education. Two classroom teachers, a paraprofessional and a social studies enrichment teacher provide the daily instruction. Meanwhile, the remainder of Central Middle School fifth-grade students participate in outdoor learning on rotating schedules on Friday afternoons.

“It’s exciting to see their attention and their excitement,” Graue said. The first thing students do when they get off the bus each morning at the game preserve is take a five-minute, silent walk in all kinds of weather conditions.

“It could be a 45 mph wind or could be cold. They dress appropriately,” Graue said.

The children don’t talk during the morning walk because it is part of their school curriculum, Graue said. The quiet time during the walk is one of the things fifth-grader Nate Steinhaus enjoys about outdoor learning.

“You get to calm down in the moment,” Steinhaus said.

For example, students during a Thursday, Sept. 19, language arts class were quiet and focused on drawing the tree they “adopted.” Fifth-grade science teacher Kristi Bommersbach walked back and forth between the students, commenting on their drawings and encouraging them to include every detail they observed, from the bottom of the trunk to the top of the canopy. Her students will chronicle the changes they see in the trees through the next nine months.

This is the second year Bommersbach has taught fifth-grade science at Sullys Hill.


“It’s an amazing program because it allows students to get into nature and use all of their senses,” she said. “When we’re talking about the life cycle of a tree, they can observe it throughout the year and actually see the life cycle as it happens.

“At the end of the year, they’ll put the book together.”

Besides adopting a tree, classes at the game preserve this fall include measuring the area of a leaf, identification of grasses, and nature photography. In the winter, students will learn ice survival, measure antlers and determine the area and pounds per square inch of their snowshoes.

“It’s amazing how well you can integrate math into the outdoors,” Graue said.

When the weather warms in the spring, the students will do birdseed math, measure an acre and finish their tree books.

“We think the kids have a lot of exciting opportunities out here to learn in a non-traditional way,” said Scott Privratsky, Devils Lake schools superintendent. No time is wasted during the bus rides because students learn both on the way out to the game preserve and on the way back to Central Middle School, he said.

“They do journaling on the way out and talk about their observations that day on the way in,” Privratsky said

The immersion program is popular with students; there are more who apply than are accepted, he said.


The program received a two-year extension on the original agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Devils Lake School District; it will continue through the 2020-2021 school year. Fish and Wildlife Service budget constraints and new plans for use of the Sullys Hill National Game Preserve Visitor’s Center may have an effect on whether the program will continue, Graue said.

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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