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Joe Walewski, director of the naturalist training program at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, was recently named the Non-formal Educator of the Year by the Minnesota Association of Environmental Education. He has worked at Wolf Ridge for 22 years. Submitted photo

Wolf Ridge instructor wins award

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In the summer of 1988, wildfires tore across Yellowstone National Park. Drought conditions and strong winds kept the fire burning for months, and 36 percent of the park was affected. After the chaos settled, extensive damage repair was needed. The National Park Service pulled together 160 wilderness experts from around the nation to lead trail repair crews.

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During a break from trail repair one day, one of the trail crew leaders identified a rare insect. The name of the insect caught the attention of another leader, and he asked where his colleague had learned about the creature. He replied that he'd attended a naturalist training program at a wilderness place in northern Minnesota.

"You've probably never heard of it," he said.

The place was Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, and the other crew leader had heard of it--in fact, he'd attended the same program there. They laughed about the coincidence, but soon found out they weren't the only ones--five of the trail crew leaders carried the same blue jacket with the Wolf Ridge logo, signifying their completion of the naturalist training program.

Wolf Ridge's Executive Director Pete Smerud tells this story as one of many. He said program graduates have run into each other in the Heathrow Airport in London and all over the U.S.

"Stories like that happen in a variety of odd places," Smerud said. "That blue jacket is such a symbol of honor and achievement that endures...an image of the community that people carry with them for a very long time."

The naturalist training program began in 1974, and has been constantly evolving since then. Currently, the program involves a year-long residency at Wolf Ridge that earns the participants master's level credits at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

The students that attend the training go on into a variety of fields--some complete their master's degree in education, some immediately take their knowledge back to a traditional classroom and some go into completely different fields--one started an environmental learning center in Argentina and one became an environmental reporter for the United Nations.

"The impact of the network that has been created is phenomenal," he said.

Joe Walewski has been directing the naturalist training program for 14 years. This year, the Minnesota Association for Environmental Education recognized him as its Non-formal Educator of the Year.

"It totally caught me by surprise," Walewski said. After he got a voicemail from a woman at MAEE, he assumed she was asking for a reference for a former student. When he called her back, she told him he'd been selected as Educator of the Year.

"I was all confused...I won what?! What a real treat," Walewski said with a laugh.

Walewski is also a graduate of the naturalist program. He graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in wildlife management.

He said he didn't know what to do after college, so he signed up for the naturalist training program. It sent him on a completely unexpected path--he discovered a passion for teaching. After completing the training program, he taught for a time in Georgia and then New York before returning to Wolf Ridge, where he's worked ever since.

"Eventually, I was able to get back here," Walewski said.

He started as a school program coordinator, moved on to the adventure education assistant position and then became the assistant director of the naturalist training program where he quickly took over the director position.

Now, he typically spends his days evaluating the teaching of his students. The naturalist training students start the week with a seminar and spend the rest of the week instructing students visiting Wolf Ridge. They teach a variety of subjects--from geology to snowshoeing--and Walewski will sit in on the lessons and offer an hour-long critique afterwards.

He stressed that there is no "typical" day at Wolf Ridge--some weeks they go on field trips, some days they are in a classroom and many days they are out trekking around the 2,000-acre campus. He said the non-formal aspect at Wolf Ridge emphasizes "teachable moments"--though a lesson might be focused on biology, if a student asks a question about a rock formation, he said teachers should take advantage of the opportunity to teach the entire class about that rock.

"Whatever it is that people are interested in, that's what we should be learning," Walewski said.

Kevin Zak, a science education instructor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, graduated from the naturalist training program in 2003. He originally visited Wolf Ridge with his middle school students when he was a teacher in the Twin Cities. After seeing the impact it had on his students, he knew he wanted to experience that, too. It turned out to be a good choice.

"(What I learned at Wolf Ridge) is foundational. I use it every day. The breadth of experience that you get there is incredible. It helped me to learn and really solidify my style and voice as a teacher," Zak said.

Zak said Walewski was an integral part of his training, and his laid-back guidance taught him a lot.

"He's very good at helping show people how to find the answers themselves," Zak said.

In addition, he said, he leads by example with his curiosity. Zak said he is constantly reinventing himself. When Zak was a student, Walewski had just gotten a camera and was experimenting with photography. Fast-forward three years, and Walewski published a book on lichens, featuring his own professional-quality photography.

"He's self-taught enough to produce a quality publication," Zak said.

Zak regularly takes his students to Wolf Ridge and he and Walewski have kept in touch over the years, even collaborating on programs. The two have evolved from a student-teacher relationship to colleagues--just as Walewski planned.

"There is this quote I try to live by...a great teacher is somebody who makes themselves unnecessary," Walewski said.

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