Environmental Education During a Pandemic

In college, I was a music major. I went to the Interlochen Center for the Arts as a camp counselor, thinking I would end up being a music teacher. When I was there, I realized I was a mediocre musician, but I really loved the forest. That changed my life.

Photo courtesy of Tina Gohr

Coggin Heeringa | Sturgeon Bay, WI

I have worked as an instructor of environmental education every summer at Interlochen since…well, for 50 years. So, I guess I’ve been a naturalist for half a century.

I grew up in Illinois, and I lived for 10 years in Washington state, but for the last 32 years I’ve lived in Door County. For the first 10 years, I was the naturalist at Newport State Park. The principal at an elementary school in Sturgeon Bay used to come on my nature hikes. One day she said, “Our district has started a school forest. Why don’t you apply to work with us?” And it came to pass.

All those years I was teaching at Sturgeon Bay, we were raising money to build a learning center out here at Crossroads at Big Creek. We wanted to get kids away from screens. Back then it was MTV; kids were spending way too much time on MTV and we thought they should get outside. Eventually I stopped teaching at the school and started working for Crossroads. I was the first employee.  

When we bought the property, it was really degraded. I think the real estate notice in the paper said, ‘A great place for a gas station.’ We wanted to change this ‘great place for a gas station’ into a viable, restored, sustainable habitat for wildlife, for plants, and for the people who interact with them.

Usually in May we are quite busy at the Crossroads. Seven schools held their Earth Day celebrations out here, we typically host an experimental archaeology experience for middle school students, we have Master Gardener lectures and Learning and Retirement classes. But because of COVID-19, everything was canceled.

We’ve moved our programming outside. Because we are free and open 24/7, we have been able to do wonderful things. We’ve had more users than we’ve ever had before. The programming is different, and it certainly wasn’t what I planned or what I dreamed. But we’re coping. Especially during the lockdown, we provided a place where people could feel safe and get outdoors and get in touch with nature without endangering themselves.

Our archaeology program has been going on for ten years. Grants from Wisconsin Humanities enabled us to hire Midwest Archaeological Consultants to supervise the dig, and middle school classes participate. We called it the middle school archaeological project, but the kids started calling it the Big Dig. Every year we invite all the schools in the whole Door Peninsula to come out for the Big Dig. The students do shovel testing, they do the excavation of a test unit, they do hikes with me. This year we were all set up to do this great dig, and COVID hit.

We’re still doing the dig, but instead of having it in one exhausting week in which we have buses arrive every morning and afternoon and hundreds of kids come through, we’re expanding it to a two-to-three-week period and will continue in the spring. Currently, we’re working with the videographers and school media specialists who film as we’re digging and will offer students an interactive virtual experience. It’s not like hands-on, but instead, we’ve opened the dig to the public.

When I was the Crossroads Director, I used to spend all my time at the computer. Now, as Program director…well, it’s opened a new door to me. I’m working outdoors with people …at a distance… or doing restoration work. I am providing a place where people can feel safe. My job may look like a lot of fun, right? Well, actually, pulling out buckthorn or reed canary grass, some people wouldn’t consider that fun. But I’m outside, I’m in the sunlight.

But oh my goodness, when we can have the kids out here doing archaeological digs, when we can have school field trips and adult programming …I can’t wait.”

Coggin’s story is part of Love Wisconsin’s Covid-19 series. Through this series we are featuring shorter stories to offer a time capsule into life in Wisconsin during this extraordinary time.

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