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PEBC director stepping down: Dunker to pursue doctorate research on outdoor learning

LAKEFIELD -- After 18 years at the helm of the Prairie Ecology Bus Center in Lakefield, Chrystal Dunker is stepping down at the end of September. By doing so, she hopes to make an even greater impact on educational programming in the outdoor clas...

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Prairie Ecology Bus Center Director Chrystal Dunker will step down from her role next month to continue pursuing her doctoral degree. She has been at the helm of the PEBC for 18 years. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

LAKEFIELD -- After 18 years at the helm of the Prairie Ecology Bus Center in Lakefield, Chrystal Dunker is stepping down at the end of September. By doing so, she hopes to make an even greater impact on educational programming in the outdoor classroom setting.

The familiar face behind the wheel of the Prairie Ecology Bus, Dunker has spent years engaging eager elementary-aged students -- and adults alike -- through hands-on projects and outdoor explorations. Between Dunker and PEBC naturalists, programs are offered on everything from aquatic life, animal tracking and birding to prairie exploration and wildlife habitat. There’s even a program to explore nature interpretation through art.

Dunker can be credited with shaping and building the PEBC into the successful program it is today, delivering a traveling classroom to students across nearly 25 counties in southern and western Minnesota and into Iowa. At the base of operations in Sparks Park at Lakefield, she looks with pride over drawings of what is hoped to be an inviting nature center there one day -- complete with classrooms, a greenhouse and even a kitchen to teach individuals how to prepare foods harvested from the PEBC learning garden.

The scope of the PEBC is far greater today than when Dunker was hired in 1998. She came on board four years after the travelling classroom project was developed -- and just a month after the center’s naturalist was hired.

“We were pretty new to the program and we had a phenomenal opportunity to create a program,” Dunker said.

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It was in 1994 that a group formed to look at ways to educate the public about what was happening in the Heron Lake Watershed. When initial plans to locate an educational center in Sandy Point park fell through, the program’s founders learned of an ecology bus that operated in Sweden.

“They thought that made a whole lot of sense to go out to people and educate them rather than have people come to Heron Lake,” Dunker said.

A grant was written to the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources, and an award ultimately funded the development of the Prairie Ecology Bus -- the first of its kind in North America. The bus arrived in Jackson County in February 1995.

Prior to Dunker’s arrival in 1998, PEBC’s foundation was set to lead a mobile outreach program. She and the newly hired naturalist went to work from there.

“It was up to us to start building on that foundation and what the bus could provide,” Dunker said. “It was a lot of trial and error in those early years to see what would resonate with students and teachers. We’re constantly making little tweaks here and there to improve the program.”

Today, the PEBC staffs two full-time naturalists in Alisha Flemming (recently named program coordinator) and Brianne Hanson, part-time office assistant Marilyn Rossow and the full-time director. A new director, Freya Thurmer, has already been hired, and the two have been working together this summer toward the transition.

Thurmer has an agriculture and organic farming background, and previously taught high school agriculture classes and operated a Community Supported Agriculture project. She will officially take the helm Sept. 19.

“Freya’s going to have new ideas, new energy, new passion for the program,” Dunker said. “It will be exciting to see what she has for the program.”

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Meanwhile, Dunker will stay on staff through Sept. 28. On her last day, she will be doing what she loves most -- teaching classes for the environmental education fair in Slayton.

After that, she will have more time to focus on her studies. She is enrolled in the environmental studies doctorate program at Antioch University in New Hampshire, where she has been a full-time student since last spring. The hybridized program includes a mix of online and onsite classes, independent research and study.

Dunker travels to the university for three-day intensive classes once each month. Her doctoral degree focus is researching the impacts outdoor programming can have on the mental health of at-risk kids.

“When you think of ADHD, autistic students, students with anger issues, there have been really neat issues where kids have responded really well (in outdoor classes),” Dunker said. “My hope is that through my research, I will be able to qualify what the benefits are.

“Outdoor education programs benefit science learning, but there are other benefits these programs can provide for children (in) school,” she added.

Ultimately, Dunker wants the broader educational community to know what she’s witnessed through her work with the Prairie Ecology Bus Center.

“To take kids outside to teach lessons … it has value,” she said. “It gives real life experiences to what is being learned in the classroom.”

Dunker said she chose her career field because of her passion for science and teaching, and her work at the PEBC has required she never stop learning.

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“I didn’t know everything when I started this job, which is wonderful,” she said. “I got to learn something every day. It’s the most rewarding career I’ve had to date. It will be hard to top this.”

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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