Mendota Heights teacher recognized for eco-education program

·3 min read

Jul. 5—Growing up, Caroline Little spent her childhood chasing butterflies through prairie grasses and digging in the dirt at her home in Marine on St. Croix. Now, she teaches her students to do the same.

"I really want to bring that passion into my classroom because I don't think a lot of my students had that same background," Little said.

That is why the all-girls Catholic Visitation Middle School science teacher has just been recognized as Earthkind's "Harmony Hero" for the month of June. Little was chosen for her efforts in educating students about monarch butterflies and the natural world around them.

"When we know about something, we care about it and when we care about it, we protect it," Little said. "Our planet really needs advocates and protectors, especially right now, and that's where our students ... come in."

Earthkind, a plant-based pest control company, has been choosing a "Harmony Hero" each month starting in February for their 2021 Year of the Monarch campaign. Each reward recipient is given in-service training from an entomologist for their school and a backpack filled with tools for eco-education instruction. They also are entered for a chance to win a trip to Mexico to witness the monarch butterfly migration.

"Our company's purpose is to imagine a world in harmony with nature," Kari Warberg Block, EarthKind Founder and Chief Harmony Officer, said. "Teachers across the country have been heroic champions for...eco-education."

Little started teaching at Visitation Middle School in Mendota Heights two years ago, but has been a teacher for 20 years. She said she likes to teach her class like an expedition: giving students a travel bag and preparing them for challenges they may encounter.

During COVID, Little focused on the importance of getting outside, away from screens. She started her eco "Wonder Spots" program to do just that — students return to the same spot outside for 20 minutes a week where they record what they observe in nature and use their 5 senses. According to fellow science teacher Kristen Piehl, Little really makes an effort to utilize the 60 acre school grounds.

"I think that Caroline has brought a lot of energy to the science program," Piehl said. "She is really inventive and she brings a lot of hands-on learning experiences to the students."

On their adventures, Students would go outside, smell the flowers, hear the birds and even taste the rain. The weekly trek was only ever canceled when temperatures dipped below zero, Little said. Kathryn Dobis, an incoming 8th grade student, said it was fun to go outside, sketch nature and take notes.

"That's a really fun way for me to learn and I really like that," Dobis said.

Molly Michaud, an incoming 7th grader, said Little would always present the students with big projects, encouraging them to think and wonder.

"She gives us big things we don't think we can handle. But then she helps ... guide us through and gets us to the point where it all turns out great in the end," Michaud said.

Even though she traded her county life for a home in St. Paul, Little does all she can to keep that atmosphere alive for her two daughters. Every inch of her small plot of land is being utilized — there's a vegetable garden and about 30 milkweed plants in her yard that she says attracts lots of monarch butterflies.

"Pollinators, monarchs especially, are an integral part of our world and they really contribute to a healthy planet," Little said.

According to Little, the monarch butterfly population has decreased by 90 percent over the past 20 years. As pollinators, they play an important role in maintaining the earth's biodiversity as we know it, she said.

Little's concern and appreciation for nature is something that stuck with Dobis from her class. When Dobis looks at a tree, she now sees it as a living object that's part of something bigger.

"Everything in nature has meaning and a purpose, and is there for a reason," Dobis said.

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