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Petzuta Zizi honored for environmental programs

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 02/05/2013 4:20 PM

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GRANITE FALLS, Minn. — Megan Ulrich was all smiles and excited to accept the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation's Environmental Education Award last month on behalf of the Petzuta Zizi Cultural and Environmental Learning and Resource Center.

Ulrich, a volunteer with the center's environmental programs, represented the many teachers and volunteers that make the environmental education programs possible, she said.

Petzuta Zizi is based in the Upper Sioux Agency State Park near Granite Falls. Its mission is to help people develop a connection with the earth so the best possible decisions can be made affecting the environment. It fulfills that goal through its yearly water education and water testing program involving fifth and sixth graders at Yellow Medicine East schools.

Park manager Terri Denisen started the program 15 years ago with retired Fish and Wildlife employee Richard Croger.

As they started the educational program, Croger focused on the aquatic invertebrates while Denisen led students through water experiments. The Minnesota River watershed is the focus of the effort with field trips focused on Hazel Creek, a part of the watershed.

Their efforts grew to include a seventh-grade component.

When Croger moved out of the area, volunteers stepped in so the program could continue.

It is entirely volunteer led, Ulrich said. She's been volunteering for 10 years and admits it was scary when she first talked about the river watershed in front of students. Her anxiousness eased as she shared her love of the prairie ecosystem and the Minnesota River system.

Ulrich grew up in Kandiyohi County and witnessed the farming and river changes over the years. The students don't have those same opportunities.

"I have seen the changes to the river," she said. "There is more to learn in the environment. We are not separate from nature, we are part of it. What we do to nature, we do to ourselves."

Every fall and spring, sixth graders visit Hazel Creek not only to take water samples and view the aquatic life, but to note the prairie landscape and habitat. The sessions also offer science-based education opportunities.

"This makes science less scary for them," Ulrich said. "I don't have a stereotypical scientist's lab coat, but I do have a thirst for learning and an interest in the ecosystem. This is one way students can access those skills."

And it offers an outdoor classroom to learn about the river, it's history and culture and ecosystem.

"We try to encourage the kids that they need to think about it," she said.

Through grants, the program has purchased equipment that groups and individuals can rent to study the ecosystem. The equipment includes binoculars, field guides, compasses, snowshoes, water testing equipment and prairie trunks.

Denisen is thrilled that the program has received statewide recognition.

"This is truly everyone working together," she said.