Outdoor Learning at Its Finest

Sep 21, 2021

The pristine woods and trails around Boulder Lake offer an exceptional environment for experiential education.

Several UMD interns and recent graduates took advantage of hands-on learning opportunities this summer with the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center (BLELC), which provides innovative educational opportunities to increase awareness, understanding, and skills related to sustainable resource management.

The BLELC operates in a stunning natural setting that’s nestled within 18,000 acres of forest, bog, wetlands and water just 30 minutes north of Duluth.

The center provides students with the structure and opportunity to translate academic learning into practice. "The Boulder Lake ELC provides a living laboratory for students to apply the skills and knowledge they’re learning in the classroom. I love working with students to help them channel their passions and build meaningful research projects based on their interests,” says Director Ryan Hueffmeier. “We provide a well-rounded experience for students by involving them in research, stewardship, education and outreach opportunities.”

Caleb Weiers, a recent alum, started working at the center as an intern in 2019 and continues as a staff member today. He was attracted by Boulder Lake’s unique location, wildlife and plant life. “Every day I’m out there I get an opportunity to see something cool in nature that I might have never seen before, that has to be my favorite aspect as a nature enthusiast,” he says.

Weiers is part of a team of several alums and interns from the UMD Environmental and Outdoor Education program that tackled a diverse range of projects related to sustainable natural resource management at Boulder Lake over the last few months.

Boulder Lake staff and interns
Anna Troyna, Ryan Hueffmeier, Raina Costello, Erik Reiff and Caleb Weiers

Real-World Learning

The summer BLELC crew conducted research and worked on projects to improve education and recreational opportunities for the public. They blazed trails, organized public events, studied bats, created mushroom beds, researched vernal pools, and more.

Raina Costello is a recent graduate who has spent several years volunteering and working with the BLELC. Among her duties: collecting ticks for a public health study being done in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health. She reports a surprising affinity for the project.

Like Weiers, Costello values working in the natural setting. “I really liked tick collection,” she says. “That probably sounds kind of strange but it is peaceful to be out by yourself in the woods and you get to see the changes in nature that happen over time as you go through the season.”

Boulder Lake alumni staff installing a bat monitoring device
BLELC alumni staff installing a bat monitor.

Anna Troyna focused mainly on a project studying vernal pools—seasonal wetlands that provide habitat for plants and animals—for her internship this summer. But she was pleased to pitch in on a variety of other tasks as well.

“My favorite aspect of working at BLELC is that you don't have to do just one thing,” says Troyna. “I worked on many things this summer to help improve the center as well as the Vernal Pool Project … I got the chance to work with other people on many different aspects and got to experience what others did on a day-to-day basis.”

One of Erik Reiff’s internship highlights was organizing the first canoe-only fishing derby at Boulder Lake. He appreciated the chance to put his academic learning to use in a real-world, dynamic setting. “This project gave me a ton of insight on project programming, the complexity of events and planning, my personal strengths and weaknesses, and so much more,” says Reiff.

Key Takeaways

The summer BLELC team gained practical skills as well as valuable lessons about ecology, problem solving and teamwork. Here are some of the key lessons they learned—in their own words.

Anna Troyna, intern

“I think one thing that I learned over the summer is that working in a group/team is a great way to combat any issues or anything that you have to tackle for the week. We have a great team of people that worked at BLELC over the summer and getting the chance to work with them is always a great experience and learning opportunity.”

Erik Reiff, intern

“Two lessons were reiterated and shared with me this summer that really stuck out. First: do what you can with what you have. This really stuck out to me because it can be easy to complain, easy to spend time talking about what you don't have, or reasons why something cannot be done. But in reality, there is always something you can do. Whether it is big or small, you can make improvements and move towards something. I think this lesson represents taking action, not complaining, and setting yourself up for success! The second lesson is: you get out what you put in. This doesn't necessarily translate to everything you do in life, but it's likely that you'll gain something, a lesson, an experience, a takeaway, resiliency, something along those lines.”

Caleb Weiers, alumnus staff

“Working outdoors so much I’ve learned a lot of lessons that keep reiterating themselves into my work ethic. But one lesson that stood out to me this summer was the lesson of: two heads are better than one. Having someone out in the field with you to bounce ideas off and problem solve together. Being able to talk through some situations and find the best possible option to get the job done in an efficient and timely manner. Of course, safety-wise having two people in the field is a must, but we had a good crew that added plenty of insights to problem-solving scenarios and that’s what stood out to me.”

Raina Costello, alumna staff

“I was involved in various monitoring projects over the summer and became more experienced in keeping very detailed specific records of the data I collected and now know how important it is! Especially when you are writing up reports on it at the end of the season.”

The Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center is based within UMD’s College of Education and Human Service Professions. The nonprofit provides innovative education to increase awareness, understanding, and skills related to sustainable natural resource management. The center’s activities are made possible through a partnership between Minnesota Power, St. Louis County and UMD.

Boulder Lake