Curiosity and Nature: A Nature Center’s approach to incorporating technology outside

It’s a beautiful irony, right? A nature center promotes getting outside, a.k.a. being “unplugged”,” yet also supports digging into your pocket for that smartphone to enhance your experience. While we are certainly a pro-hands on, mud-under-the-fingernails kind of nature center, we also recognize that there is a great opportunity to enlist technology to further learning, make connections, and spark curiosity among today’s digital learners (ah-hem, let’s face it, if you live in the twenty-first century, you are one, too).

So, how do we balance technology and nature as a force for good to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards? Our short answer: Meet ‘em where they’re at.

In today’s world, this means, both, (1) acknowledging how the digital revolution is changing learning and (2) exploring how technology can be used as a tool to strengthen our connection with the natural world.

There is lots happening in the research and education community to explore the first question, but less is known about the role of technology and nature.

Josie Haley Sophie Comic Book
Comic Book1

(Pictured: Students in the Homeschool Ed-ventures program study plant succession through direct observation while working together to share their understanding using a ComicBook app).

Curiosity as the App

For nearly fifty  years, Riveredge has subscribed to an inquiry-based method of learning in which investigation starts with asking good questions. Students from K-Gray explore queries like, how can you tell the health of a river, how is a forest like a prairie or pond, or even how do our actions impact the land. While these are just a small sample of what is studied at Riveredge and in our schools each and every day, no matter the scale, we believe that the most powerful tool for investigation is our mind, and the power of asking good questions is what we as parents, educators, and mentors are tasked with teaching our kids. In other words, we believe that curiosity is the driver of learning and technology (both digital and nondigital) is a tool that can be used to capture, explore, and create new ways to deepen our connection with nature.

Try it out!

So, whether you look to nature as a digital detox or you are looking for new ways to appease your curiosities through technology, we hope you’ll join us in this conversation. Keep an eye out for some of these events starting this summer and into 2018.

  • There’s an App for That program series: A spin on traditional nature programs that includes all the fun hands-on experience but leaves you with some resources you can take home as your own “pocket naturalist.”
  • Take it with you Packs: Explore Riveredge through a new set of eyes by renting one of our (free) packs that each feature some our favorite themes, scientific tools, and downloadable field friendly apps.
  • Parents be on the lookout for a nature tech blog series that features ideas for incorporating technology outside that you and your family can try out in your own backyards and nearby parks this summer.
  • We also have some technology and nature-themed special events in the works to highlight how technology and robotics are  helping us better manage land and conservation.

Do you have thoughts or ideas about nature and technology? We’d love to hear from you! Please contact Carly Hintz, Educational Technology & Evaluation Specialist at Riveredge. Reach her at or 262-375-2715.

ilLUMINating the natural world

planting16 1 (1)

From the beginning, one of Riveredge’s core beliefs has been that everyone deserves the opportunity to experience the benefits and wonders of the great outdoors. You already help make that a reality for tens of thousands of kids each year, and thanks to incredible support from The Robert and Josephine Piper Foundation, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, and many generous individual donors, that’s also a reality for nearly 1,200 Milwaukee students who attend a Lutheran Urban Mission Initiative (LUMIN) school each year.

Through this partnership, students at five LUMIN schools are able to experience a Riveredge field trip each of their elementary years. Not only can these students connect what they are learning in school with real life concepts and experiments in a living laboratory, they can build and connect their knowledge from year to year to gain a deep understanding of the world around them. Perhaps most importantly, for many of these students, Riveredge is often their first experience in a true outdoors setting. By transforming students who are initially wary of being outdoors surrounded by nature into young adventurers who dig through the dirt for soil samples and splash through the river for macroinvertebrates, this partnership is helping train the next generation of environmentally literate citizens to explore, appreciate, and protect the natural world in their own backyard.

You can learn more about the impact you are having on the lives of these LUMIN students by checking out a spotlight on the program at the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee’s website!

Everyone can be a Riveredge Kid

Everyone can be a Riveredge Kid: A Nature Center’s approach to Inclusion

As a fan of Riveredge Nature Center, you may have already heard, we are committed to reimagining what it

Rachel “Rach” Hoffman, Inclusion and Accessibility Intern, poses with her brother during a 2002 Nature Detectives Camp. Nearly fifteen years later, Rach was reunited with Riveredge through this internship experience.
Rachel “Rach” Hoffman, Inclusion and Accessibility Intern, poses with her brother during a 2002 Nature Detectives Camp. Nearly fifteen years later, Rach was reunited with Riveredge through this internship experience.

means to be a nature center in today’s society. And, while we know that “You’re Always a Riveredge Kid” because of the transformative experiences you’ve had with this special place, we recognize that today’s society, and our connection to the natural world, is changing. That is why recently, Riveredge decided to partner with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (funded by the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation) to employ one young adult with special needs to complete a part-time internship whose sole focus was on assessing our commitment to inclusion and accessibility in our environmental education programs.

A few short weeks after the position description was posted, we knew that we had found our girl, and in turn, we not only reunited another Riveredge Kid, but also discovered that everyone can benefit from strengthened relationship between nature and people. 

Continue reading “Everyone can be a Riveredge Kid”

New Forestry Curriculum Available

With gratitude to the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board, Riveredge is happy to provide our forestry management curriculum as a resource for other environmental educators, parents, and institutions.  We also thank our older homeschool students who, perhaps unknowingly, helped us fine tune and create this curriculum last school year!

This 5 week curriculum engages middle and high school homeschool students (6-12th grade) in inquiry based education programming that examines forest health and land management through the lens of a professional forester and/or land manager. This curriculum uses the most current technology/tools in forestry management to engage, inform, and teach students about Wisconsin forestry and forestry management concepts.

For a copy of the curriculum, please visit our Homeschool Ed-Ventures webpage and look for it on the right hand side of the page.

This curriculum was produced, and is available to you, under a 2015-16 grant from the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board.  It is copyrighted by both Riveredge Nature Center and the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board. Please properly acknowledge both parties when utilizing the curriculum for your purposes.

Our 2015 & 2016 Biennial Report is Here!


The last two years at Riveredge have been an incredible journey. Because of you, thousands more kids, families, and adults got outside and experienced hands-on environmental education and learning. Because of you, brand new partnerships were formed that are radically redefining the role of a nature center in the community. Because of you, an incredible natural sanctuary continues to be protected and maintained and to serve learning laboratory for dozens of future scientists and educators through our unique internship programs.

Want to learn more on the impact you had? Check out our just released 2015 & 2016 Biennial Report for some amazing stories of success and innovation. Thank you for all you do!

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Water World

We’re water rich in Southeast Wisconsin. The Midwest contains 20% of the world’s freshwater supply and, in a world where dwindling water resources are a growing concern, the city of Milwaukee has recently staked its economic future on being a “World Water Hub”. However, resources are only as sustainable as the dedication of individuals to use and manage them wisely. That’s why Riveredge is devoted to being an area leader in water education and outreach.

It’s hard not to see a bright water future in the faces of young scientists pulling on waders and splashing into the Milwaukee River to examine phosphate and PH levels. For 27 years, Riveredge has led Testing the Waters, a partnership program with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District (MMSD)  that brings together local organizations and schools to teach students the importance of water quality and provide them with the tools and training to perform the same water quality tests as professionals. Over these past 27 years, 34,000 students have become scientists in their own watersheds and come to real world conclusions about the impacts of land use.

 A similar impact can be found in our River Connections partnership with the Urban Ecology Center. After learning about and testing the quality of the Milwaukee River at UEC, an urban site, Milwaukee students get the chance to come to Riveredge and perform the same tests in a rural stretch of the same river. Through this program, students get a unique opportunity to study the interconnectedness of the natural world firsthand and examine how impacts of human activity in one part of an ecosystem can have on another part miles away. This broadening of horizons serves students well not just as future potential scientists but as future citizens of a globally connected world.

It’s not just students we’re working to reach. Our sturgeon reintroduction project, a partnership with the Wisconsin DNR, serves not only to help bring back a vital species to our waterways but also to celebrate the positive effect we can all have on our natural world when we dedicate the time and effort. In a time when most environmental news is about destruction and the negative impact of humans, seeing thousands of people gather on the banks of Lake Michigan at our annual Sturgeon Festival at Lakeshore State Park in Milwaukee to celebrate a prehistoric fish and the importance of healthy waterways is certainly something worth celebrating.

An Unforgettable Night Under the Stars


One of my favorite, and most fun, nights of the year at Riveredge is fast approaching, and I wanted to be sure I personally invited you to join me in the celebration.

Our annual Farm-To-Table Dinner on Saturday, September 10 is a chance to feast on incredible local food prepared by a talented chef, to walk in the prairies, to meet and mingle with community and business leaders passionate about Riveredge and environmental education, and to enjoy an unforgettable night of revelry under the stars and swaying trees.

It’s also vital to ensuring we can continue to give 35,000 people meaningful experiences in the great outdoors each year, and that we are able to continue maintaining and protecting 379 acres of wild Wisconsin, a sanctuary that has provided families wonder, relaxation, and adventure for almost 50 years now.

If you believe in the importance of nature and Riveredge like I do, please consider joining us for this night that truly puts the fun in fundraiser. We’ve even got some very special live auction items that will allow you to further your support of our work while enjoying some uniquely Riveredge experiences:

  • Be one of the very few people to experience, in person, baby peregrine falcons being banded by WE Energies before they leave the nest
  • Canoe the legendary Bois Brule River (fished by Presidents and traversed by fur traders) with renowned fly fishing guide Damian Wilmot, including a stay at the Stout Island Lodge, a getaway filled with rustic luxury
  • Spend an evening tasting exquisite foods from Sri Lanka, prepared by board member and native Gaurie Rodman, in a dinner for ten at a lovely country home
  • Go on a guided backpacking trip to your choice of three incredible up-North destinations with the greatest guide of all (me!)

I hope you’ll join me at a night I promise you won’t soon forget. To register, please visit our event page or give us a call at 262-375-2715.

See you under the stars,


Jessica Jens
Executive Director
Riveredge Nature Center

Powering Peregrines

The youngsters complete with the new bands which will allow scientists to track their progress as they fly away and start families of their own.

When you think of baby peregrine falcons, you might not necessarily think of power plants. But that’s exactly where many peregrines are hatching and (quite literally) learning to spread their wings these days. While, historically, peregrines built their nests on cliffs alongside rivers and lakes, widespread use of egg-thinning pesticides like DDT decimated the species in the 60’s until they were nearly extinct east of the Mississippi River.

It was an out-of-the-box idea by peregrine researcher Greg Septon to get falcons into boxes that has really made a difference for this species. When Greg approached We Energies to build nest boxes at some of their power plant sites, they quickly agreed. Captive-born peregrines were released at the plants and quickly took a liking to the new nest boxes. The program remains a rousing conservation success and today, 45-50% of all peregrines in Wisconsin are born at power plant sites.

The work is far from over, however, as peregrines remain endangered in Wisconsin. To continue the progress made, each young falcon born at these sites is banded by scientists so their progress can be tracked and studied throughout their lifetimes. These banding events are harmless to the birds but, in addition to the future scientific value, offer members of the public a rare chance to see this powerful species up close. When two of us at Riveredge received an invite to a banding at the Port Washington Generating Station, we were awed by the adorably ferocious power of these young falcons and in all the Riveredge connections we noticed in the room that day.

Take Mike Grisar. Mike, We Energies’ Principal Ecologist, works hand in hand with Greg to monitor and oversee the peregrine project and to take the work into classrooms as a conservation teaching tool. Mike also sits on Riveredge’s Board of Directors and is a key advisor for our research and conservation work. In a story similar to those we hear from many Riveredge Kids, Mike first visited Riveredge on a class trip in first grade grade and credits his time here as part of the foundation for his love of the outdoors, a love he has dedicated much of his work and personal and life to.

Fittingly, Mike succeeded Noel Cutright as Principal Ecologist at We Energies. Noel, who passed away in 2013, was foundational to the creation of the peregrine project, in addition to a huge range of other environmental initiatives throughout the state and beyond. He’s also a beloved member of the Riveredge Family- Noel, who was recently inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, sat on our Board and, in addition to many other efforts here, helped create the Bird Club that today bears his name. Noel’s legacy was well represented at the banding by members of the Wisconsin Ornithological Society, an organization he headed as President twice, and by four Noel J. Cutright interns the organization is sponsoring who will be joining Riveredge for the summer to research and contribute to the statewide Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II initiative. 

Vivian Kolosso, Riveredge Kid, examines the falcons and the banding process up close.

It’s the last Riveredge connection that might have most inspired us that day, though. It came in the form of Vivian Kolosso’s beaming face as she shook with excitement about her chance to witness the birds and banding in action. Vivian’s grandmother won two spots to the banding at Riveredge’s annual Farm Dinner fundraiser and knew it would make the perfect unique gift for her granddaughter, a Riveredge Kid who loves wildlife and science. “This is an amazing experience, and it just makes you feel good to see this live and in action,” Vivian told us after the banding.

That’s the Riveredge spirit- one Riveredge Kid inspiring another. Don’t be too surprised when you see Vivian featured here again some day. A talented writer with a love of Jane Goodall, Vivian told us she thinks she might one day want to be a wildlife writer. We can’t wait to see what she comes up with.

Meet Ted

Meet Ted.

As Superintendent of the West Bend School District, Ted Neitzke is directly responsible for supporting the transformation of thousands of students into active and engaged citizens of the world.

Ted had a transformation of his own in middle school as he stepped off a bus into the wild world of a Riveredge summer camp.

Riveredge for me is a place that is transformational. For the first time, I threw on waders, got into a pond, learned about the ecosystem, and learned about all the things in the water that I could not see with my own bare eyes. It just opened up my mind to all the different things in nature I was walking past every day.

Ted’s summers became ones filled with digging in the dirt, scooping up and examining wacky water critters, and pulling up logs and searching for signs of life.

“It set me on a direction where I became very exploratory, very curious about the world in which I lived. It’s one of the pinnacle experiences in my life that set me into education.

Today, the lessons learned from these early transformative experiences affect not only the West Bend students Ted supports on a daily basis, but the thousands of kids, families, and adults touched by Riveredge each year. As Riveredge’s Board President, Ted is giving back and providing the time and visionary leadership needed to ensure Riveredge continues to touch lives today.

Perhaps most important, these experiences are shaping something even closer to Ted- his family. His children, Charlie and Grace, have been coming to Riveredge since they were 5.

“Now that 5 year old is 13 and gets upset if he has to miss part of a day of camp. And now they teach me about Riveredge. They’ll show me things I never saw before. We’ll come out in different seasons, and it’s just fun to watch them explore and take risks I would have loved to be taking when I was their age.

They understand that they’re a very small piece of a very big world and that when you come to Riveredge and you walk through this or you go the trails, or the river, or the ponds, or go to an event, you are participating in something bigger than you.

Ted’s story is a perfect example of the old Riveredge mantra: “Everything is connected to everything.” Past to present. Generation to generation. Summer camper to future community leader.

Start your Riveredge story by today by becoming a member or consider making a donation to allow us to continue to turn today’s young explorers into tomorrow’s future leaders.

Andy Larsen’s Legacy

Our friends at the West Bend Daily News recently wrote a great profile of Andy Larsen, Riveredge’s first naturalist, educator, and Executive Director. Andy was such a vital part of Riveredge’s founding and presided over decades of its early excellence. His ideas and passion still hugely influence what Riveredge is today, and we’re so happy to be able to share this profile with anyone who might have missed it in the paper!


It seems so natural

Area man at Riveredge from the beginning


CEDARBURG — His walk may be a little slower and his voice softer, but Andy Larsen’s passion for Riveredge Nature Center appears as strong as the day he was hired as the center’s top naturalist in June 1969.

Larsen’s ideas and passion helped shape the nature center into what it is today. Current center leaders agree Larsen’s hiring was a key in the center’s history.

“Andy Larsen was hired in June and began work on Aug. 1, (1969,) and the fun began,” the center’s website said in detailing its history.

Larsen said in one of his first newsletters after joining Riveredge: “The goal to which Riveredge must dedicate itself is the development of environmentally literate citizens.”

“That’s a goal as vital now as it was then,” Larsen said. Larsen’s wife, Judy, said her husband’s retirement from Riveredge was in 2001. He served as naturalist, executive director and now is executive director emeritus. Riveredge began with the purchase of 72 acres. According to its website, the center now covers about 379 acres.

“The center’s mission of environmental education and natural area preservation continues,” Larsen said. “I did anything and everything in the early days, but our mission has stayed the same about educating the public about the environment and how to preserve it. We laid out the initial plans for the center then.”

Riveredge Executive Director Jessica Jens said it would not be an overstatement to say the “Riveredge Nature Center is what it is today because of what Andy did here.”

“He still calls us on a regular basis to offer ideas and suggestions,” Jens said. “He’s gone out with me into the back part of the property and told me and showed me things about nature that most people don’t realize or notice. He can’t travel as much as he used to, but his mind is still sharp and shows his great intelligence.”

Jens said Andy is well known for his collection of walking sticks.

“He uses them to point at things when he’s showing people around the nature center,” Jens said. Larsen said he has more than 30 walking sticks he’s gathered during his wide travels.

Larsen’s family has long been involved in protecting the environment and teaching others about it.

“My father, Gilbert, was a friend of Gaylord Nelson,” Andy said. “He worked with him and others in preserving the Apostle Islands.” His sister Mimi was also interested in environmental issues. Judy and Andy said their two children, Eric and Elizabeth, are also interested in the environment.

“Eric is an arctic explorer and Elizabeth works with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission,” Andy said.

Andy and Judy acknowledged they’ve met many people and made many friends during their decades of involvement with Riveredge.

“To be able to teach young people and adults about the value of nature and the environment was a lot of fun,” Andy said.

The idea for a nature center was originated by the Whitefish Bay Garden Club in early 1965. A committee first inspected the site that became Riveredge Nature Center in the fall of 1965.

By January 1968, the Riveredge Foundation was formed. The immediate goal was to raise the funds necessary to buy land, which was identified as filling the needs for a center. The land, the Grady tract, was located near Newburg on the Milwaukee River.

An eager group arrived at Riveredge in October 1969 to begin careers as volunteer- teacher naturalists. Andy said one of the biggest joys he has from his work at Riveredge is the “number of critters and the natural prairie and grasses that have returned to the land that had been turned into cropland and is again in its natural state.”

Riveredge offers curriculum- development assistance to schools and teachers, continuing education courses for teachers of all grade levels, an outreach program to serve urban and rural areas, and a range of educational programs for the general public.

“Many of those programs were started by Andy,” Judy said. “River-edge programs offer students the opportunity to experience and investigate the natural environment under the guidance of skilled environmental educators.”

The biodiversity of the land provides a teaching tool for understanding interconnectedness, development of specific sustainable systems for energy, shelter, food, waste, water and land management.

Andy was diagnosed in 1988 with Parkinson’s Disease. Despite health issues, he continues to meet and talk with people who are interested in the environment.

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