Great Plains Nature Center
Nestled in the heart of the city, Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita, Kan., is an oasis
of natural wetlands, prairie and woodland habitats. To view a slideshow, click here
Great Plains Nature Center opened in Wichita, Kan., in 2000 with the goal of providing opportunities for the public to investigate, understand, and develop an appreciation for wildlife and the environment, while promoting sound stewardship of natural resources.
A grant recipient of the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, the center offers wildlife education programs and resources to the public, and is used frequently by teachers and community groups. More than 160,000 people visit the center annually, with 50,000 participating in programs in 2008.
Life Abounds in a Natural Setting
Red-eared slider turtles bathe on logs in the hot summer sun. A muskrat speeds across the water with his propeller-like tail. Toads, snakes, and water-loving creatures abound in the wetland. A momma mallard duck guides her ducklings through a web of cattails.
These are unusual scenes in the heart of a city, but Great Plains Nature Center offers these sights and more in the midst of urban Wichita, Kan. Although traffic zooms past the wildlife center, the oasis inside teems with life of a different kind – critters, creatures, and wildlife viewed in their natural wetlands, prairie, and woodland habitats.
The center hosts programs about natural resources, plants, and animals of the Great Plains. Open free to the public, it is a popular destination for area residents, students, teachers and community groups. The adjacent 240-acre Chisholm Creek Park boasts walking trails and bridges over varied terrain that complement the center's programs.
But without a gift from the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, the Great Plains Nature Center exhibits might not have been possible. In 1998, the foundation awarded $300,000 to the wildlife center to create the 3,500-square-foot Koch Habitat Hall featuring dozens of exhibits. In 2007, the foundation pledged an additional $50,000 to refurbish the exhibits and support the center's education programs for youth. According to Susan Addington, grants manager for the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, "Great Plains Nature Center is an important community resource for children, families and schools. The quality of the exhibits and the overall beauty of the walking trails and natural habitats simply can't be replicated in a classroom."
Promoting Hands-On Nature
Community groups and students of all ages come to Great Plains Nature Center to experience a new kind of hands-on, interactive learning. Visitors can participate in workshops, nature hikes, junior naturalist classes, summer camps, scout programs, and more.
A great blue heron flies from pond to pond at Great Plains Nature Center.
Dr. Catherine Yeotis, former associate professor of science education at Wichita State University, is especially familiar with the center's activities. During her 28 years at the university, the now-retired professor tapped into the center as a valuable resource for teaching future generations of science teachers. "Great Plains Nature Center has been a tremendous asset," Yeotis said. "Many students and even teachers have never had an opportunity to experience natural habitats and wildlife firsthand. The center provides that opportunity within an urban area and it is available to everyone, free of charge," she said.
Yeotis introduced hundreds of future science teachers to Koch Habitat Hall where visitors can run their hands through the dense, fuzzy fur of a badger, explore a floor-to-ceiling aquarium of native Kansas fish, and compare their hearing to that of a bobcat. The hall also features a colorful history of the Great Plains including a 2,300-pound stuffed bison, audio of a black-tailed prairie dog, and other interactive wildlife activities.
Bob Gress, director of Great Plains Nature Center, stresses the uniqueness of the place. "We really have an education package wrapped in fun. We want kids to have fun while they learn, and we want them to be excited about being outdoors." The center also offers free resources such as pocket guides and colorful posters.
From preschoolers to seniors, more than 160,000 people visited Great Plains Nature Center in 2008, with 50,000 participating in a program or activity. The center's free admission makes it unique. "We operate out of agency supports and a variety of grants. Flint Hills Resources, Koch Industries and the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation have all helped us. We work hard to make our educational programs accessible to everyone," Gress says.
Marcia Helten, a teacher at St. Mary's Catholic School in Derby, Kan., uses many of the classroom resources available to teachers. She borrows a trunk filled with animal furs, skulls, and tracks to illustrate her lessons and invites a naturalist to show-and-tell small reptiles. When Helten brings her elementary students to the center, they learn about Kansas creatures and visit Koch Habitat Hall on what she calls "an amazing adventure." "Students learn about creatures that live in the same space as they do, and they take away a love and respect for those creatures," Helten observes.
Yeotis and her niece, Mary Grace, were recent volunteers at Great Plains Nature Center's annual "Walk with Wildlife." She continues to be an enthusiastic supporter of the center and its staff. "They've created a level of excitement about nature and broadened the public's awareness of the special habitat in our own backyard," she stated. "Great Plains Nature Center is truly a treasure."
In addition to Great Plains Nature Center, the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation supports a variety of wildlife preservation and education projects including the Koch Wetlands Exhibit inside the Kansas Wetlands Education Center at Cheyenne Bottoms and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
For more information, visit www.GPNC.org.