Agri-Palooza means hands-on education for local school kids

CHATHAM – You can tell a fifth-grader that wetlands absorb storm runoff using a lot of fancy words. You also can show a fifth-grader how wetlands absorb storm runoff using a bucket of water, a tank with tiny artificial trees and a sponge.

One method gets the point across more easily. Can you guess which one?

Educating students about wetlands, weather, soil conservation, hunting and other topics was the purpose of the Fifth Annual Agri-Palooza, held Sept. 27 at Michigan State University’s Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center in Chatham.

Conservation districts from Marquette and Alger counties hosted the free event.

Organizations such as the National Weather Service (which gave the wetlands-runoff demonstration) gave presentations to elementary students from across the central Upper Peninsula to get the point across about topics ranging from macroinvertebrates to sheep farming.

National Park Service ranger Andrea Chynoweth, for instance, talked about aquatic invasive species and advised a little post-boating trip clean-up is in order.

“Things get stuck to the bottom of the boat,” Chynoweth told the students.

The ranger said she believed the message about invasive species was getting across.

“They’re getting it,” Chynoweth said. “These kids already have had some interaction with it before.”

Educating kids early about forestry and agronomy is one way get across the wise use of natural resources. However, getting local children to actually see a farm is another focus of Agri-Palooza, even though some kids might have already been to one.

“But there are a lot of kids, from Father Marquette and Ishpeming schools, who don’t see this,” Alger Conservation District Executive Director Teri Grout said.

At Agri-Palooza, they had a chance to go on a hayride and even pet a sheep.

“We try to spread things around the whole farm so they get to wander around a little bit,” Grout said.

However, the students got a taste of the overall outdoors experience in Michigan.

Conservation Officer J.P. Fitzgibbon gave a talk about how “sound biology” in the state affects conservation efforts, including why the Michigan Department of Natural Resources alters its annual Hunting and Trapping Digest.

“We don’t have to change it every year,” Fitzgibbon said, “but we do have to change it when nature changes.”

After all, fewer turkeys one year might require a lower hunting limit later, he said.

Students looking at a display about soil learned Michigan’s state soil is Kalkaska sand, a well-drained soil of cold climate. Listening to a talk about macroinvertebrates, they learned about the various sensitivities of caddisflies, crayfish and leeches in regard to water health.

They even played a “piping plover game” that showed how human intrusion can affect the population of this bird species. The kids who were the “plovers” had to pretend to eat food items when not being disturbed. They also had to eat while being bothered by kids who inserted a ball, a hoop and noisy cans into the equation.

This U.S. and Wildlife Service-led game showed it’s easier for piping plovers, which are listed as endangered in the Great Lakes region, to survive if left undisturbed.

It’s typical of the lessons the presenters at Agri-Palooza wanted to teach the younger generation.

Grout said, “Our mission at the conservation district is to assist people wisely and with using all their natural resources.”

Learning about the wise stewardshp of natural resources appeared to be enjoyable for Caleb Shelly, a fifth-grader at Mather Middle School. He said he particularly liked the weather/wetlands station.

“Well, the demonstration model was really cool,” he said. “It was kind of cool to see how much a change can do.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is