By Elizabeth Budd ‘19 and Isabel Rameker ‘24

During fall 2021, Carleton and Northfield community members participated in the “Natural History Minnesota’s Prairies and Potholes,” an interdisciplinary class based on the University of Minnesota Extension Services Master Naturalist Curriculum. The class incorporated a unique arts and humanities overlay to the existing science-based content and was supported by the Public Works Initiative. Participants developed capstone projects, which were showcased at the Northfield Arts Guild at the conclusion of the course.

The course was led jointly by Nancy Braker ‘81, Puzak Family Director of the Cowling Arboretum and Senior Lecturer in Biology, and Eleanor Jensen ‘01, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art. Braker previously taught courses from the Master Naturalist program in Carleton’s Arboretum, offered through the University of Minnesota Extension Services in an effort to promote environmentalism through courses on the natural history of the state. Minnesota Master Naturalists Jim Platt and Laurie Hougen-Eitzman provided additional instruction for the course.

In consultation with Studio Arts Professor Kelly Connole and several arts and humanities faculty, Braker and Jensen developed the overlay of the course, in order to incorporate drawing, writing, and more in addition to the traditional science content. Not only was the goal for participants to learn about Minnesota natural history and gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Arboretum, but Braker and Jensen also hoped participants would explore new ways to incorporate the Arboretum in their learning and teaching, and be inspired to use the Arboretum in new ways going forward.

 “The class was dreamed up to help faculty, staff, and community members become more familiar with the Arboretum, its natural history, and the ways that different kinds of learning and teaching can be incorporated into other areas,” Braker said.

The course included two all-day field trips to a number of prairies within 60 miles of Northfield, as well as final capstone projects incorporating elements of the class. Final projects explored issues of invasive species, water, navigating local prairies, creative expressions related to the landscape, and more.

Professor Kelly Connole, CCCE Fellow Anna Schumacher, Northfield Middle School art teacher Molly Otte, and Greenvale Elementary School art teacher Ada Leadhart developed a project focusing on invasive species and involved students in Northfield schools. Connole explained, “Our project focused on invasive species that are often willingly planted in gardens only to escape into the natural landscape.  We wanted to help local gardeners identify invasive plants and consider replacing them with native species.  We began by drawing pictures of invasive species versus natural species to help people identify the differences,” Connole said. “Molly and Ada, teachers in the Northfield school district, decided to take the lesson back to their students. Hundreds of elementary and middle school students received a lesson on the plants and they created their own drawings.  Those drawings became beautiful postcards to help spread the word.”

Another group explored water advocacy, partnering with Words for Water and the Clean Water Partnership. The group, consisting of  Carleton Studio Arts Instructor Danny Saathoff, Curator of the Visual Resources Collection Heidi Eyestone, Science Education Associate Sarah Fortner, and Assistant Director for Community Impact Erica Zweifel,produced promotional materials for these organizations that can be used in the future to advertise events and promote issues of clean water. The project’s goal was to encourage personal connections with water to foster greater investment and advocacy moving forward.

The final project, Prairies in Motion, developed hiking maps of local prairies and creative expressions drawn from the landscape. The maps outlined guided walking routes around Koester Prairie, a prairie reserve near Northfield. Additionally, the group’s work incorporated drawings, films, and other creative work inspired by deeply connecting to the prairie. The group consisted of Carleton Professors Peter Balaam, Susan Jaret McKinstry, Meredith McCoy, and Laska Jimsen, Visiting Professor Julianne Shibata, Director of the Grants Office Christopher Tassava, Studio Arts Technician Andrea Van Engelenhoven, and local artist Ian Turnage-Butterbaugh.

English Professor Jaret McKinstry emphasized how “the experience of seeing and hearing about [the Arboretum] from unfamiliar perspectives was magical.” In addition, group member and fellow English Professor Balaam shared, “We talked about observation as a creative act, and I used some brainstorming exercises with the group to heighten, pause, wonder, rather than find answers.”

The materials produced by all the groups for the capstone projects were exhibited at the Northfield Arts Guild, with an opening event in October with their final products on display until December. The opening event, as well as the ongoing exhibition, furthered the goals of the course by extending the learning beyond the immediate participants into the wider community.

Reflecting on the course, Jensen said,“A highlight for me was fostering a community around learning more about our natural surrounding[s]. There were diverse skill-sets and perspectives that were offered, and I think that deepened the collective experience.”

For participants, the course provided an opportunity to explore new avenues of inquiry, connect more deeply to the land in Carleton’s Arboretum, and further advocacy of critical environmental issues. Whether or not the course with its unique arts and humanities overlay is repeated, participants will carry the experience forward into other facets of their teaching, learning, and general lives.

With a requirement for 40 hours of contact time, the class met twice each week from September 13 to October 21, 2021 on Mondays from 6:30-8 (likely on Zoom) and Thursdays in the field from 5-7pm. There were two all-day Saturday sessions in the field on September 25 and October 9. The final session on October 21 included a reception at the Northfield Arts Guild celebrating the creative work in the course’s capstone projects.