The UI WILD (Wildlife Instruction and Leadership Development) department houses a group of outreach programs within the University of Iowa College of Education. The programs consist of the Iowa Raptor Project, Iowa Wildlife Camps, and School of the Wild and primarily work out of the University of Iowa’s Macbride Nature Recreation Area. These programs aim to awaken awareness, nurture appreciation, and inspire action for all things wild. Each program provides out-of-the-classroom educational experiences focused on wildlife and Iowa’s natural habitats.
The roots of UI WILD began in 1985, when Recreational Services took over management of the Macbride Nature Recreation Area for the university and a graduate student started a raptor (birds of prey) rehabilitation and education program that would eventually be known as the Iowa Raptor Project.
In 1990, David Conrads (Director of UI WILD) brought his background in wildlife biology and birds of prey to the director role at the Iowa Raptor Project. That winter his supervisor asked him to start a nature camp for kids.
"I loved the idea, but if we started a camp for kids, we had to call it something a little more exciting than ‘Nature Camp’," Conrads said.
Conrads, who grew up in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, did not experience 'the wild' as a youth and after being urged by a professor during his pre-med undergrad experience to “get out of this stuffy lab and get out into the field”, he decided to do just that and took a course called “Field Vertebrate Natural History”.
"On our first field trip, we went birding at Lake Red Rock, and I had no idea of the diversity of birds and the beauty of the wild, which was incredible," Conrads said. "At the end of the trip we set up a spotting scope aimed at some dark birds that looked like crows around a hole in the ice on the lake."
"As I put my eye to the spotting scope, I saw that they were all Bald Eagles, and I had never seen Bald Eagles in Iowa before," Conrads said. "The light bulbs went off, and I moved into field biology. Later in life, when asked to start that ‘nature camp for kids’, I thought of the hands-on 'in the wild' experience that had transformed me, and I wanted to offer the same types of experiences for kids like me who didn't have that when they were younger."
In those first camps, Conrads and his team used raptors as icons to tell the story of local ecology and conservation issues impacting wildlife with Hawk Camp focused on woodlands, Falcon Camp on prairies, and Eagle Camp on wetlands.
While Wildlife Camps began to grow within the Macbride Nature Recreation Area during the summers, Conrads was hosting one-day conservation education field trips for schools during the school year.
"The one-day field trip model during the school year was frustrating because we struggled to form meaningful relationships with the kids in such a short amount of time," Conrads said.
By 1995, Conrads began to form the idea of growing the Iowa Wildlife Camps model into a week-long experience during the school year to reach a more diverse group of kids whose families may not have access to the traditional summer camp experience.
"By bringing the program into the school year, my vision was that we would provide every kid with an opportunity to be in the wild for a week," Conrads said.
Conrads won a grant from the US EPA to pilot week-long programs for five Iowa City Community School District elementary schools during the spring of 1998. This led to a DNR REAP Conservation Education Program grant which funded the rest of the Iowa City elementary schools in 1998-99.
During the 1999-2000 school year, every ICCSD elementary school participated in the program without grant support and School of the Wild was born. Conrads then left for further graduate education in Michigan.
For thirteen years, the programs continued to flourish. In 2013, Conrads returned full-time to the University of Iowa to oversee the UI WILD programs. With Iowa Wildlife Camps nearing capacity, he began exploring ways to bring them to other areas across the state of Iowa. Eventually, Dr. Jay Gorsh was hired to oversee School of the Wild, as well as the expansion of Iowa Wildlife Camps into Iowa DNR State Parks.
"We developed a great relationship with the DNR, and this year we'll be in 14 state parks with our Iowa Wildlife Camps program," Conrads said.
During those summer camps at state parks, Gorsh was asked about school-year programming and through that word of mouth, more communities across Iowa began to request bringing School of the Wild experiences to their area.
What began at MNRA is now spreading throughout Iowa. School of the Wild operates in local parks throughout the state and the staff trains teachers and county naturalists to teach and lead it.
"We equip teachers and county naturalists on how to deploy the School of the Wild. We play an advisory role because they are under our accreditation. We have a responsibility to make sure the experience is educational and impactful, whether it be here at MNRA or Decatur County or anywhere else in the state," Conrads said.
By the end of the 2022-23 academic year, School of the Wild will be in 40 counties.
School of the Wild is accredited by Cognia as a 'special function school' - the first and only one of its kind in Iowa. This spring School of the Wild will undergo its three-year reaccreditation process to identify ways to continuously improve.
Typically, School of the Wild offers a 5-day rotation. Students are divided into five groups and rotate through five day-long classes each led by a different instructor.
At MNRA, those five classes include days focused on woodlands, wetlands, and prairies (the three main Iowa wildlife habitats), as well as ornithology (including a visit to the Iowa Raptor Project) and archaeology.
This current school year, School of the Wild will reach about 3,000 elementary students in Iowa City and across the state of Iowa, a number that is growing each year.
"Our ultimate goal is to make sure that every Iowa school child gets an opportunity to spend an extended weeklong educational adventure in the wild," Conrads said.
The School of the Wild program works typically with upper elementary school students, while Iowa Wildlife Camps are open for children and youth from kindergarten through high school.
Learning is hands-on. For example, students in the wetlands class will experience water quality sampling by looking at chemicals or invertebrates in the water, as well as wildlife diversity through netting and observing aquatic insects, amphibians, and reptiles.
School of the Wild also provides practicum field experiences for over 330 College of Education students annually, as well as student teaching opportunities. Meanwhile, Iowa Wildlife Camps hire undergraduate and graduate students and provides them hands-on experience in teaching outdoors.
"Through both School of the Wild and Iowa Wildlife Camps, University of Iowa students are engaging with children across the state who are participating in a tremendous opportunity to connect with the important work being done here at the University," Conrads said. "And that is cool; we feel blessed to see it take off."
Both School of the Wild and Iowa Wildlife Camps have received positive feedback from parents. "We regularly hear from parents who listen to their child's stories of adventure at the supper table, so the whole family vicariously experiences what their student has experienced," Conrads said.
"A lot of these kids have never been in a wild area or on a canoe, and don't know what these habitats are," Conrads said. "The only introduction they have is through film, which can portray natural areas as scary. Some kids, especially those coming from urban areas, experience fear during the first or second day," Conrads said.
"There is no way for any of us to feel any sense of responsibility to care for our wildlife habitats and the natural world if we aren’t connected to it," Conrads said.
"Our UI WILD programs provide extended outdoor experiences to schools and students throughout the state to help connect students to the wild places still found in this beautiful place that we call Iowa," Conrads said.
"Through the immersive experience, we see fear become love, and that's a beautiful thing.”
Story by James Dykeman