After hosting a Chinese delegate at Wolf Ridge earlier this year, it's time for Executive Director Pete Smerud to return the favor.
Smerud will travel to Taiwan and China to help nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in China expand their environmental education efforts to promote people’s connection to nature. He'll be traveling on behalf of Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, a nonprofit environmental education program in Finland, and as a representative of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, a nonprofit that works to build lasting relationships between citizens of the U.S. and China.
The 15-hour flight will be a first for him.
"I’ve traveled to Central America and Europe, but I’ve never gone on such a flight. I’ll be flying directly from Chicago to Shanghai. It’s like a 14-hour and 50 minute flight," Smerud said. "It's going to be fun, but I'm going to be absolutely wiped when I get back in two weeks."
From Jan. 2 through Jan. 15, Smerud will offer advice on how China’s environmental NGO’s can create sustainable facilities and educational materials, experiential educational techniques and staff training methods. But he's also looking forward to what he can learn from the experience.
"This people-to-people exchange is one of the most effective ways to improve communications between the countries," Smerud said. "I'm really going with an open mind, sure I’ll learn a lot and enthused to go and see what I can take back and what I can bring to China."
Early in 2019, Smerud received an email from the Association for Nature Center Administrators seeking centers willing to host representatives from China. Smerud and his fellow staff member saw the email and jumped at the opportunity.
In April, Wolf Ridge hosted Chen Yang, deputy director of public education at Shenzhen Mangrove Wetlands Conservation Foundation. Yang is responsible for managing public education at nature reserves in Shenzhen, a city of 12.5 million people adjacent to Hong Kong. She also conducts research on nature education development in Guangdong province and facilitates the Wetland Education Center Program through the China Coastal Wetland Conservation Network.
She stayed at Wolf Ridge for five weeks. During that time, she attended classes with children, took graduate school classes, met with administration and science research staff and got an all-encompassing look at Wolf Ridge, its programs and its administration.
"She took it all in and was so deeply interested in every angle of how we conduct business, our models of learning, the strategic planning, everything," Smerud said. "It was fun to work with someone with that intense interest."
Smerud also recalls how she was intrigued by the climate and how students at Wolf Ridge continued their outdoor experiences in all forms of weather.
"And if you remember last spring, we had snow well into May. She's from southern China," Smerud said. "She's like, 'Are the children still coming? Will you still take them outside?' Yes they are. They'll be just fine. They're hearty Minnesota kids. She was really impressed with the outdoor ethic of Minnesota. The idea that we just go outside — it's what we do. We dress for it and go out."
Smerud got the impression that wasn't how things were done in China thus far.
"I'm interested to see how it is when I get there," Smerud said. "For example, she said the nature centers in China are really in the infant stages, and they're more of an arboretum or museum-like experience where you walk a paved trail to a sign and you read as you overlook the mangrove swamp, but they don’t take children out into the mangrove swamp. She was impressed by the hands-on nature that happens here."
The hands-on nature approach, environmental education program and community connection of Wolf Ridge are what Smerud credits for the program's selection. Since 1974 the center’s naturalist training program has produced professional educators who now lead nature-based educational programs all over the world. Over 13,000 K-12 students from Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota visit Wolf Ridge each school year.
"Everyone from Minnehaha in Two Harbors to William Kelley in Silver Bay have been sending their kids here for more than four decades," Smerud said. "We have that deep community connection. But we also have this broad scope reach of impact in the industry that I think they're looking to establish in China."
Chen Yang and staff visited 30 different environmental education centers throughout the world last year, 20 of which were in the U.S. They recommended that China's NGO's environmental education efforts follow the Wolf Ridge model with its focus on hands-on, immersive experiences in nature.
“I’m honored and humbled to be able to share the wisdom and lessons learned in Wolf Ridge’s almost 50 years of connecting more than 700,000 students to nature through hands-on field study,” Smerud said. “China’s recognition of the importance of educating students about the natural world and how to interact with and how to care for it into the future is inspiring.”
Smerud will return to the U.S. on Jan. 16 and is looking forward to sharing what he learned from his experiences.