LUVERNE -- When you want to teach teachers the best way to get their students to see and experience nature through the eyes of a camera lens, who better to lead the workshop than southwest Minnesota's native son -- famed wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg.
The Luverne High School graduate and former Daily Globe photographer led a group of more than 60 third- through ninth-grade teachers from across Minnesota Saturday through the first of what is hoped to be 80 state-wide workshops in the next two years.
Dubbed the Digital Photography Bridge to Nature, the program is intended to curb the so-called Nature Deficit Disorder so many of today's youths have, according to Carrol Henderson, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources nongame program wildlife supervisor.
"Kids are not going outside anymore -- they're not connecting with nature," Henderson told teachers Saturday morning at the Palace Theatre in Luverne.
The idea to get students into nature through the use of photography was spawned from a program developed in the Richfield school district four years ago, said Henderson. Students in Richfield visited a local nature center, but Henderson saw an opportunity for similar programming to be done around the state.
Soon, the Minnesota DNR initiative took root, and funding was secured through the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, which receives proceeds from the Minnesota State Lottery program
The Digital Photography Bridge to Nature program received a $160,000 grant to fund nearly a dozen program facilitators in the metro area and Greater Minnesota. The facilitators will lead teacher workshops -- 40 each year for the next two years -- to demonstrate photography as an educational tool in programs on nature and the environment.
As part of the grant and additional funding received by the DNR's non-game division, 500 Nikon digital cameras were also purchased. The cameras, compiled into a dozen kits that also contain digital photography books from Minnesota's 4-H program, will be loaned out to teachers who complete the workshop and plan a nature session with their students.
"Other states are already finding out what we're doing," said Henderson. "This could be a prototype for schools across the country."
Steve Maanum, who will coordinate workshops for the Bridge to Nature project in Greater Minnesota, said a similar program in northern Minnesota that began two and a half years ago has reached more than 2,000 students and is considered a success.
"You put a camera in a kid's hand and they slow down," Maanum said. "They're observing and asking questions."
While teachers may fear not knowing the answers to all of the questions asked, Maanum said that is part of the excitement -- teachers and students learning together.
David Olson, a teacher at Minnetonka West Middle School and a volunteer in one of the local nature center's enrichment programs, said he planned to take what he learned on Saturday back to his students.
"It's always so hard to find ideas you can make interesting for eighth-graders," Olson said, adding that he hopes his students will appreciate nature and photography. "To take kids out there with a purpose in mind just enhances (their education)."
Annie Olson-Reiners, who teaches first grade in the Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion School in Cottage Grove, is excited to take what she learned Saturday back to her school.
"We are starting a school forest on park land," she said, adding that it would be a great opportunity to get students more interested in the forest if they had a purpose -- a camera -- to record the images they see.
"They love cameras," said Olson-Reiners. "Anytime you can put a camera in their hand, they observe closely."
Mary Spivey, one of five metro coordinators, said the goal is to reach 1,000 teachers and 30,000 students in the next two years.
The teacher workshops consist of four hours of training on use of digital cameras, basic photo tips, a hands-on photo activity, a review of photos taken, downloading and editing techniques and student project ideas.
For more information on bringing a workshop to local schools, contact Jan Welsh at email@example.com or call her at (651) 982-9720, ext. 225.