Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Belwin Outdoor Science, a partnership between Saint Paul Public Schools and Belwin Conservancy to provide immersive outdoor education to school children. Since 1971, over 600,000 students have visited Belwin from Saint Paul and surrounding areas. For many, the visit leaves a lasting impression.
One such visitor is Gabrielle Horner. Horner’s 3rd grade class at Withrow Elementary School was one of the first to visit Belwin in 1971 and, since that visit, Horner has gone on to have an impressive career in conservation. She met with us recently to recall her first memories at Belwin and her childhood growing up in the St. Croix River Valley.
“I was always outside,” Horner fondly recalls. “I was what they would have called back then ‘a tomboy.’” Encouraged by a father who had grown up duck hunting and fishing, Horner was deeply curious about nature. However, it wasn’t until a class trip to Belwin in 1971 that her curiosity became a passion.
That day, Belwin Outdoor Science teachers guided Horner and other students down to the wetlands, where they helped the children take samples of the still pond water and examine them under a microscope. There, Horner saw something surprising: life.
“It was a transformative experience,” Horner recollects, “I had no idea, before then, about the invisible world in the ponds.” Horner had seen what students still see today at Belwin: daphnia, a small microscopic organism that thrives in wetlands. “I couldn’t believe there was something I couldn’t see with my own eyes that was alive in the world. I decided right there to study nature… and help preserve nature.”
Inspired by her experience, Horner went on to earn a scholarship to Macalester College where she majored in biology. Horner pursued graduate studies at The Evergreen State College in Environmental Policy.
Her studies completed, Horner began an impressive career as an environmental advocate, holding positions at The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota and nationally, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the USFWS. Over the years, Horner has spoken directly to all kinds of audiences, including elected officials at all levels and mentoring young women, about her passion for conservation: a passion that was first sparked at Belwin Conservancy.
“Belwin shaped who I am,” says Horner. “What struck me [at Belwin] was how little we really know about nature. Still to this day, I am fascinated by the landscape and plants whenever I go into a new area.”
Belwin Outdoor Science continues to educate young people every day. Today, roughly 10,000 SPPS students are served each year by the program in single-day, science-focused field investigations. This includes every third and fifth-grade student in SPPS, approximately 1,000 middle and high school students, and approximately 1,800 special education students who attend Belwin’s adaptive outdoor education programs.