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PEBC introduces new traveling classroom

PEBC naturalist Alisha Flemming (left) shows Lily Neylon-Voda and Justice Badgley the macroscope on board the new ecology bus Monday night in Lakefield. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)1 / 2
The new Prairie Ecology Bus Center was unveiled during a special event Monday night in Lakefield. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

LAKEFIELD -- Lily Neylon-Voda and Justice Badgley were excited to get their first tour of the Prairie Ecology Bus Center (PEBC) during an unveiling of the new traveling classroom Monday night in Lakefield.

The pair of 10-year-olds from Jackson checked out the macroscope and microscope on display inside the new bus, and watched as PEBC naturalist Alisha Flemming used the macroscope to focus in on a bug. The image was then displayed on each of the eight monitors, providing passengers an up-close view of a creature commonly found in the ecosystem of southwest Minnesota.

The Prairie Ecology Bus Center, based in Lakefield, is one of just a few ecology busses in the nation, and the only one that is capable of transporting students from their school to an outdoor learning center and back, all the while using technology on board to provide a full day of education.

"This program helps (students) learn about and see their own resources," said PEBC executive director Chrystal Dunker. "Getting kids outside can open doors for them."

PEBC introduced its first travelling classroom in 1994, utilizing a revamped school bus to teach elementary school students about natural resources and their environment. The center spent the past decade raising funds and planning for the purchase of a new ecology bus to enhance the learning atmosphere for students.

Nearly two-thirds of the $320,000 cost for the new bus was paid for through a major bequest from Daisy Jacobs. Following the woman's death, a large portion of her estate was left to the PEBC.

"It was perfect timing for us," said PEBC board chairman Dan Livdahl. "(The new bus) wouldn't have happened without her. Donations and grants paid for a lot."

Donations are still being taken to pay for the 32-passenger bus, which arrived at PEBC headquarters in mid-September. Dunker said the organization hopes to have a $30,000 loan from the City of Lakefield repaid within the next year, and eventually repay the $10,000 borrowed from PEBC's general fund.

"I'm hoping now that we have the vehicle here, that will be a good selling tool," she added.

The new bus has several exciting features, including exterior storage compartments, an improved wheelchair lift, a roll-out canopy and exterior speakers for use in outdoor programs, an indoor restroom, a smoother ride and a quieter generator.

Dunker said the storage space is much better for naturalists and for students, adding that the only storage space in the old bus was in the back, right behind the passengers.

"We put our wet and muddy boots and wet nets in there, and the people who travelled in the back had to smell the stinky stuff," Dunker said. Now, those items can be stored in compartments accessible from the exterior.

The extra storage compartments now make it possible for the ecology bus to expand its programming, such as adding overnight educational trips to its offerings.

"We can interest people from the metro area and do a prairie or wetland tour," said Dunker. An ecosystem camp is another possibility.

"It gives us a whole new opportunity," she added.

Livdahl said the ecology bus center predominantly serves students in the 14-county region of southwest Minnesota. Programs are offered year-round, and Dunker said they have expanded into other areas of the state in recent years. The bus has offered programs in nearly 30 counties in Minnesota and northwest Iowa.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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