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Murray Journal

Murray School District’s nature center a treasure for all young learners

Feb 07, 2022 01:54PM ● By Julie Slama

In fall 2021, new Kennecott Nature Center director Kathy Singer teaches fourth-graders about wetland animals. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Fourth-grader Jack Binggeli and his classmates walked along the Jordan River, checking out fresh animal tracks, downed trees gnawed by beavers, and listening to the calls of waterfowl.

“If I got stuck in the city, I’d want to go to the woods, so I’d come here,” he said. “I’ve seen frogs and snakes, and I’ve learned about beavers.”

His dad, James, returned to chaperone his son’s field trip after being on one earlier in the week.

“It’s a nice sanctuary in the middle of the city that is well kept and provides the opportunity for them to experience nature without having to drive a long way,” he said.

The oasis is in the heart of the city along the Jordan River trail in amongst the Cottonwood trees where birds nest. The Kennecott Nature Center offers Murray School District schoolchildren an outdoor education classroom offering hands-on science experiments, creative writing, art and photography opportunities based on the nearby wetlands and foliage.

“It’s a pretty simple building, just one room with some restrooms, designed with the observation deck on top, which is kind of cool,” former Murray School District Superintendent Richard Tranter said. “We wanted it to provide environmental education to kids, especially at the elementary age, to have them experience life in a swamp-type area with the Jordan River there. All of the plants, all of the wildlife—it’s just a great outdoor vibe. So many kids don’t have the outdoor experiences that they should and we’re able to provide curriculum in a synthesized organized way is a real benefit.”

The origins of the nature center started with Tranter’s predecessor, Ron Stephens. 

“Orin Black, he was a community member and so well respected—he liked to ride horses and he invited me to go for a ride along the path that went along the river and while we were on the ride, I remember being so impressed with the area,” Stephens said. “I remember thinking this has everything and it’s no more than 15 minutes away from every one of the schools in the district. I just remember the thought that this would be a special place for an environmental center right there on the river.”

Then Stephens added with a laugh: “I also remember having the neatest secretary and I asked what she would say if someone called while I was out with Mr. Black riding a horse. She said, ‘I’ll tell them the truth, that you’re out horsing around.’”

That land, where once Native Americans fished and early settlers trapped and later would be used for sugar beet and mink farms, would become the home of the nature center.

Stephens previously had served at Weber School District before coming to Murray, where he and Weber’s school foundation—the first school district foundation in the western U.S.—established a nature center for that district. That district’s nature center requires a bus ride up through Ogden Valley.

Stephens said after that horseback ride, he brought together individuals and established Murray’s first school district foundation. He introduced the concept of a nature center to them.

“They were excited about it,” he said, adding that Kennecott came to the forefront as a possible partner. “They agreed to help us finance the center. I’m thinking it was around $50,000, but in return, we agreed to put their name on the facility.”

The city owned the land, operating it as a park, Stephens said, and were willing to help with the project and Murray Rotary and others stepped up to make the nature center a reality.

“We got a lot of support from the community, people donating labor and skills. People were excited about this, and it wasn’t a typical build of a school project with tax money. The idea just kind of caught on so people would spearhead parts, a contractor agreed to help and gave us a real break on the cost because it was such a new idea,” Stephens said. “Initially, the school district took the lead in helping maintain the property and paying for the ongoing expenses and the city took care of the land and trails.”

It was during this time that Stephens retired, and Tranter came into office.

“The land was vacant, and we began to pull funds together to build the nature center,” Tranter said. “Kennecott and the city both put money into it, so it was a true partnership of the three entities.”

Tranter said that local general contractor, Denzel Watts, whose kids attended Murray schools, donated labor. Kennecott Nature Center was completed in 1999.

“When it first opened, we weren’t quite sure how to deliver the curriculum. We looked at certain grade level teachers developing the curriculum, but with the nature center’s mission with the study of ecology and wildlife, and teachers having so much to do, we realized we needed someone who has that background to develop the curriculum and be there to teach. So, we hired a coordinator to develop curriculum and would deliver it to classes that would sign up and visit the nature center,” he said. 

After a few weeks, that coordinator stepped down and the district hired Hillcrest Junior High teacher Judith Payne, who served as the nature center coordinator for 20 years until retiring this fall. She taught students up until the last year because field trips were eliminated at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Judith doesn’t live far from the nature center and her kids went to Murray, so it was a good find to have her take over and she did a great job for all those years,” Tranter said. “She would develop lesson plans, teach the curriculum and then, when they go on nature walks, they could explore and examine the area. The high school used to do biology class over there and would take water samples from the Jordan River.”

Initially, Tranter said that Granite School District had some outdoor curriculum that they were willing to share so an agreement was made they would share that in trade for use of the center and that partnership continued throughout Payne’s tenure.

Tranter said funds were allocated for additional curriculum and materials. Many of the mounted animals, animal pelts, shells, eggs, teeth, claws, porcupine quills and snake skins remain today.  Payne also wrote grants to provide supplies.

“I was fortunate that we really had most of our needs met,” Payne said. “I mean, when you have nature right outside your door, you don’t need a heck of a lot more in your classroom. It was if I had a new program so maybe it would be neat to have a cougar skull or a book or something. But it was just more of having students come and we’d have a good discussion on what they’re learning in science on their grade level, learn a few things and go outside and explore and have hands-on activities. It’s just really enhancing and supporting what they’re learning in a classroom in a different environment that makes it memorable. They hear it from a different voice and then are able to go outside and apply it whether we’re classifying leaves or learning about the lifecycle of rocks or studying erosion and then, literally we’re seeing it on the riverbank of the Jordan River.”

Payne said sixth-grade students investigated Jordan River water samples under the microscope, first-graders learned parts of a tree and then, “they’d go out and look for their favorite tree and give it a big hug.” Fourth-graders walked quietly studying birds and used binoculars to observe them and learn about their characteristics. 

“I feel like these kids will get excited about seeing a bird when they’re on vacation or walking to school or camping and have a greater appreciation of the natural world around them. I think it’s naturally going to make them better citizens and stewards of the earth,” Payne said. 

Even after a couple fires burned around the nature center, Payne said they were able to use the regrowth as learning opportunity, and there was never down time until the pandemic hit.

“The nature center was always pretty booked for elementary,” Payne said. “The high school and junior highs usually did their own thing and were always welcome to come. It really is a success story. It’s quite a unique learning place, like no other. It’s just grown over the years to become a part of the community and part of the school experience. You build real friendships and relationships, certainly with the teachers, but also with the students. The students feel a sense of stewardship; they know that the nature center and the area kind of belongs to them, and it feels like a second classroom.”

She said she would typically see students three dozen times while in elementary school. Some visits were tied in with presenters from the Natural History Museum, Hawk Watch, the Nature Conservancy or others.

Her lesson plans were passed along to Cathy Singer this fall, who has taken over coordinating and teaching outdoor education to Murray District students. 

Singer, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology and master’s in plant biology, has a love of nature and experience teaching community college students and teaching children outdoor education as she started a kids’ hiking club and regularly leads local children on hikes in the Wasatch Front.

“They learn that this canyon is cut by a river or this one is cut by a glacier and the kids learn the names of the wildflowers and about the animals’ habitat,” she said.

Even on a nature walk with Murray District kids, Singer will point out a Cottonwood tree or help explore an animal track in the mud.

“With the younger ones, I make it more like a scavenger hunt so they’re looking for things that are related to the lesson. The older ones, we may talk about the landforms and erosion we see on the Jordan River,” she said. “Fifth-graders are excited when they get to dissect owl pellets here.”

Singer also is adapting many of Payne’s programs and developing some of her own to fit the new Utah science curriculum that was adopted during the pandemic.

Recently, Singer hosted a sixth-grade class that wrote acrostic poetry as part of a winter writing workshop. This particular day, she was teaching fourth-grade students under the direction of substitute teacher and parent Mary Ann Gulden.

“I like how students are always exploring and learning something they don’t usually get to experience in a classroom with a textbook,” Gulden said. “I like how everything is hands-on; they can touch, see, smell instead of seeing a picture or video, especially after so much has gone online.”

Her son, Luke, had examined some animal tracks he found, saw birds scurrying in the cattails and admired the river’s current.

Parent chaperone Liz Macconkey, who watched her daughter Charlotte and friends find different kinds of leaves, said the nature center is a hidden gem.

“Some of these kids would never have this experience without the nature center,” she said. “It has stayed so pristine all these years. It’s such a treasure.”