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From Backyards to Backwoods: Cameras are digital bridge to kids, nature

Fabian MullerDahlberg gets up close and personal with a feline during a project that gets kids interested in nature through the lens of a camera. (Steve Maanum / For the Enterprise)1 / 2
University of Minnesota Extension Educator Joe Courneya mentors a photo student. (Steve Maanum / For the Enterprise)2 / 2

On Sept. 26 I shared a little about our "Through the Lens of a Camera" project, but I didn't tell you how it started and where it's going.

In the summer of 2005 I drove to Denver and made a presentation to the Foundation Board of Directors for NANPA (North America Nature Photography Association). I informed them of a project I was undertaking that would teach kids about their environment through the lens of a camera. I asked them to consider helping with the project in some way. They were excited, genuinely interested, and voted to assist in the efforts.

Lack of equipment was always the stumbling block to any real progress. It was easy to get people excited about using cameras as a teaching tool, but schools didn't have bunches of digital cameras just sitting around.

A breakthrough came two years ago. With a donation of 24 cameras from Olympus and funding from the University of Minnesota's Regional Sustainable Partnerships, Joe Courneya (U of M Extension Educator with American Indian Youth) and I began working with two pilot schools - Park Rapids and White Earth. Our work went way beyond the formal education setting of the classrooms. Non-formal settings included 4-H groups, summer nature camp groups, the Northwest Service Co-op's Creativity Festival at Bemidji State University, participants of Prairie Fun Day at the Detroit Lakes Wetlands Office, and Park Rapids Kinship kids and adults at Itasca State Park.

This year our grant has been renewed and it allows us to continue our work with the two original schools while expanding to other interested schools in our region of the state.

At about the same time I was in Denver, Carrol Henderson (DNR non-game supervisor) and Jim Mallman (Minnesota Watchable Wildlife director) were setting up a nature photography workshop with Dudley Edmonson (professional photographer) at the Windom Open School in Minneapolis. I was not aware of their efforts to connect kids to nature through photography and they were not aware of the work we were doing along those same lines.

Carrol has now written a proposal called "The Digital Bridge to Nature" and Joe and I became part of its planning team last winter. The funding that has already been secured will allow trainers throughout the state to conduct approximately eighty teacher workshops over a two-year period.

When I stood in front of that prestigious group in Colorado four years ago, I made the statement, "We're going to start small in northern Minnesota to groom for success, then we'll take the project state-wide, and after the Minnesota model is developed, it can be adopted or altered by other states to fit their needs."

It may have sounded like nothing more than a very ambitious far-fetched dream. Little did I know of the paths that would be followed or the people and organizations that would be brought together in order to make this dream a reality.

If you want to find out more about the project, please contact me at