Center Line Public Schools’ Academy 21 Weekend Outdoor Wandering students Samuel Jokipii, left, and Jared Cramier, check out the reptiles at the Sterling Heights Nature Center.

Center Line Public Schools’ Academy 21 Weekend Outdoor Wandering students Samuel Jokipii, left, and Jared Cramier, check out the reptiles at the Sterling Heights Nature Center.

Photo provided by Jason Ratkowski


Program gets local students outdoors in nature

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published December 22, 2021

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CENTER LINE/WARREN — The Center Line Public Schools’ Academy 21 virtual program is for students who learn best in an online setting.

But there are times in which the students like to get away from their computers, meet up in person and participate in hands-on lessons.

So this year, history teacher Jason Ratkowski, social studies teacher Andrew Parski, and English and history teacher John Duffy developed the Weekend Outdoor Wandering (W.O.W.) program for interested middle school and high school students. 

The idea of W.O.W. is to get students off their computer screens and out into nature with monthly field trips. As part of the program, students have explored the varied wildlife of Michigan and the different roles the Great Lakes play. Currently, they are working together to see the extent of the invasion of a foreign crayfish from Louisiana that could impact the ecosystem of the Great Lakes. 

Through a partnership with Michigan State University and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the students have been conducting a population study of Michigan crayfish. They have visited Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township, the Sterling Heights Nature Center, and Yates Cider Mill in Rochester Hills to bond with one another and look for crayfish, which Ratkowski said people eat and use as bait. 

“They are an invasive species in our area. They are not natural here in Michigan,” Ratkowski said. “They are from Louisiana, and they are reproducing at such a high rate. It could impact our ecosystem and throw our ecosystem out of balance.”

The students have set up traps in attempts to catch a crayfish but so far have been unsuccessful. 

“It might have been too cold or the river current was going too fast,” seventh grader Ryan Powers said. “The trap itself could have been too small. The traps are cylinder shaped. We put bait inside.”

However, they have caught other species, such as tadpoles, which they quickly put back in the water. If they do catch a crayfish, “We’re supposed to preserve it so we can take it to the DNR,” Ratkowski said.  

In the meantime, the students have been learning about local waterways in W.O.W. Some students, for instance, didn’t know what a marsh was. But after their visit to Lake St. Clair Metropark in November, they got a clear understanding of the wetland ecosystem that features a variety of plants. 

They also got close to living reptiles and amphibians, and still life exhibits, while visiting the Sterling Heights Nature Center. Another highlight was checking out the center’s 900-gallon aquarium. 

“We’re trying to instill the love of learning,” Ratkowski said. “It’s also about the social interaction. Our students are able to interact.”

Powers decided to participate in W.O.W. “to get out of the house.” Plus “it seemed kind of fun. We’re able to get off the screen and get outside. I was with people I didn’t know. I still had a good time. I really enjoyed people outside and running around.” 

Sophomore Janeya Begum is glad to be a part of W.O.W. She has plans to videotape the upcoming field trips to seize each moment.

“Last year I had photography class I really enjoyed,” Begum said. “I like taking pictures.” 

Eighth grader Kendle Cavenaugh likes being in W.O.W. “because it’s nice to get out and do stuff.” 

As their English teacher, Duffy has asked the W.O.W. members to write about their crayfish experiences and also the importance of being outside in nature.

 “We missed so much during the pandemic,” Duffy said, adding the group has plans to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts in January. “There is a Great Lakes display that ties into many things we do here. We can talk science. We can talk art. We can talk about the area as well.” 

The Center Line Public Schools’ Academy 21 virtual program is open to students in grades K-12.

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