The Urban Ecology Center started humbly with a small team working out of a trailer near a forlorn park above the Milwaukee River. Today the park is flourishing, the river is healthier, and the Urban Ecology Center has grown to three neighborhood-based, ecological-steeped educational centers on Milwaukee’s east, central and south sides.
This week more than 20 people from around the world traveled to Milwaukee for the Urban Ecology Center's first 4-day Intensive to find out what makes the UEC tick.
Gabriela Vaca, who works for the University of Guadalajara in Mexico, was ready to absorb whatever came her way.
“We’re working on a project to build a museum of environmental sciences. It’s a very nice project because it’s about [helping] people understand how the cities work and how they depend on the nature and the landscapes that surround our city,” Vaca said.
Education Director Beth Heller guided the participants below the Urban Ecology Center toward the Milwaukee River and into Riverside Park.
Heller instructed them to pull out paper and pencil. “The assignment is actually very elegant – very simple. Your assignment is to draw what you see,” Heller said.
She said it’s part of the UEC staff training tool. They learn to communicate with one another and sort out differences when they come up.
That lays the foundation for their jobs — connecting kids to nature. Not as a guide for a once-a-year field trip, but by having classes return over and over, throughout the years.
UEC focuses on schools within a 2-mile radius of each center. Instructors don’t just escort kids into nature, they shuttle them to and from school UEC vans.
“We want to remove any barrier that would stop schools from working with us,” Heller said.
Scientist and entrepreneur Amit Lotan was part of a group from Tiberias — an ancient city in Israel next to the Sea of Galilee. Lotan says right now they’re at the discussion stage.
“I’m looking from the outside a little bit on this whole workshop, but it’s opened my eyes. It’s clear to me that kids need nature ... but I was definitely not aware that some kids don’t have it, they have no access to this,” he said.
Land Stewardship Manager Kim Forbeck greeted the groups 5 miles west at the UEC Washington Park branch.
Forbeck, along with a small team and oodles of volunteers, works to turn landscapes at all three UEC branches. Their goal is to transform areas choked with invasive plants into diverse, native oases for insects and other wildlife.
“There’s a famous entomologist out of Delaware, Doug Tallamy, who talks about non-native species in sort of like putting out a big bowl of plastic fruit. So, it’s not very good as a food source or foraging for the critters that are around,” she added, “We’re creating that wonderful buffet."
Forbeck said there’s no better teaching tool for kids than watching natural systems at work.
Participant Jeff Gover said native plants and wetland restoration are new to his professional vocabulary. He came with a group from McAllen, Texas, where they’re building a center of urban ecology. Gover works for the city and is managing the building’s construction.
“I really came with construction in mind, but now I’m catching the purpose of the building we’re doing and hoping to go back and influence some of my management that they need to look at things a little more differently,” Gover explained, “A lot of it’s been about numbers, but it also needs to include the purpose of what we’re doing.”
The UEC provided the visitors with a hands on experience back at the Riverside branch.
As dusk fell, Research and Community Science Coordinator Jennifer Callaghan prepared to lead them on an expedition.
“You are joining us tonight for three different surveys rolled into one. One of longest standing community science projects here at the Urban Ecology Center, our acoustic bat monitoring project. You will also be joining us for one of our newest projects, which is firefly monitoring,” Callaghan said.
Before Callaghan had a chance to start surveying, news arrived that a visiting crew of bat experts from the DNR had netted a bat.
Callaghan guided them into the park where the bat team identified, measured and tagged several bats before setting them free into the night sky.
Vaca, the visitor from Mexico, said she’s inspired.
“Just the fact that it is possible to make something like this. I think that’s what I’ll take back home," she said. "We’re facing challenges and all the stress and the work, but it’s worth it."
Looking at the people clustered around the DNR bat experts, “When you see all these people, it’s impressive and I think the contact is important for everyone,” Vaca added.
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