Natural Education by Jan Aiels

50 Stories for 50 Years

is presented by New Leader Manufacturing

Jan Aiels has a rich history with Indian Creek Nature Center. She served as an educator for ICNC for 24 years, during which she developed a wide range of innovative programs, led school and Scout groups, as well as creating curricula for outdoor programs. Her work laid the foundation for key components of our educational programming to this day. In 2022 Jan was honored by the Cedar Rapids Garden Club as a recipient of the Garden Club of America’s Elizabeth Abernathy Hull Award for her longtime commitment to the Nature Center and environmental education. Jan retired in 2014, but she remains a dedicated supporter of ICNC. These are her reflections on the 50th anniversary, in particular how the Nature Center’s educational program has blossomed over the years. 

Sharing a moment with Executive Director John Myers as I was being honored as a recipient of the Garden Club of America’s Elizabeth Abernathy Hull Award.

“I believe it was 1989 when I first became involved as a volunteer teacher-naturalist leading 5th grade field trips for the Nature Center. After several seasons I was asked to apply for a 15-hour-a-week position coordinating a senior program. Within a year the job expanded to 25 hours a week, with additional responsibilities. During this time I initiated Boy Scout and Girl Scout workshops. I had been a professional Girl Scout staff member for Mississippi Valley Girl Scouts before coming to ICNC and saw the need for nature programming in the Cedar Rapids area that addressed GS Badge programs.

Many people simply do not feel comfortable in outdoor wild areas. They do not understand what’s there (snakes, mosquitoes, poison ivy, of course!) and people are not self-assured enough to teach children about their connections to trees, plants and wildlife. So, many leaders were not getting kids out in nature. This presented an unmet need in the community that ICNC could fill. Sometimes I think the best gift we can share is making people feel confident about being in wild areas and arousing their sense of curiosity to learn about what lives there and its importance. People do not see themselves as part of the natural cycles of nature. These workshops were very successful as leaders from Illinois, the Quad Cities, Waterloo and local areas brought their Scouts. Back then we were the only nature center offering anything like this. We soon added Boy Scout workshops.

“Back then we were the only nature center offering anything like this.”

The position of senior naturalist opened and I applied and became full-time, managing school field trips programs, youth workshops in the evenings and on weekends, and senior programs. I wrote and received a grant from Mutual of Omaha to develop a series of preschool field trips offering seasonal topics. TV’s Wild Kingdom host Jim Fowler presented the check in person to us.

By the mid ‘90s the Cedar Rapids schools’ science curriculum was revised, which meant our field trips needed to change focus to meet curriculum requirements. The traditional 5th grade field trip became optional in the school district and most opted out. But I worked with several key teacher-naturalist volunteers to create a new experience based on the newly constructed Lynch Wetland. Then we saw all the 2nd grade classes visit. New curriculum means new teacher-naturalist trainings. Volunteers who formerly led prairie and woodland experiences were now being asked to help kids catch and learn about macroinvertebrates, and learn about beavers, frogs, snakes and wetland life cycles. Our volunteers met the challenge and opened an exciting world to the kids and teachers.

We offered our programs to surrounding school districts, who began to schedule field trips. Of course, maple syruping was always the favorite but there is only so much time in March! 

“We were always looking for a new niche.”
I also had teachers approach me to design field trip experiences on a specific topic. Marion’s Vernon Middle School read the book My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George and wanted an outdoor component to enhance the students’ experience. We created an all-day field trip with five stations teaching more than 125 6th graders outdoors skills: fire building using flint and steel, knot tying, birds, edible plant and tree identification, and mammal tracks. It was so successful it became one of our summer camps each year. Jean Craighead George was delighted to give us permission to use the name of her book as the name of our camp session.  We added archery to the camp curriculum, then snowshoeing after a donation of 20 handmade pairs came to the Nature Center. We were always looking for a new niche.


The Sense of Wonder Outdoor Classroom was created shortly after attending a workshop on outdoor playscapes.

By the late 1990s a second naturalist was added to the staff (thank goodness!). We continued to expand youth programming with a more formal experience for students who were homeschooled. I attended a workshop at the National Arbor Day Foundation in Lincoln, Nebraska and learned about natural playscapes and how preschool teachers in their program integrated nature into all their classroom experiences. The Sense of Wonder Outdoor Classroom was created near the Penningroth Barn.

I hear about young people who came to ICNC for a camp or attended many public programs with their parents and then went on to pursue college studies in nature-related fields. I saw dads bringing their kids here and ask about that “big old tree” they saw on a school field trip. Is it still here? They wanted to know how to find it. Hundreds of Boy and Girl Scouts and other youth groups helped us plant the prairies on the former Bena Farm land. More planted hundreds of trees on the slopes of Bena Farm’s former pastures. Many came back to see how “their” trees were doing or ask what wildflowers bloom in the prairies where they scattered seed. That is ownership. That is creating a “sense of place” in their lives.   

We all know there is a huge disconnect from nature for many people as we become more dependent on technology. The stress of today’s culture can be overwhelming. Many people have a sense of hopelessness as we experience climate change, derecho-type events, the pandemic, and the general sense of anger and unrest in the world. How do we cope with this?  We can step out of our homes and cities and seek out a wild area … get off the cement and onto the dirt. Each deep breath of wildflower scented air, trill of birdsong, or flash of bright feathers lifts our lives and heals us. Nature gives us hope, a different view of our complicated world.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Jan – How wonderful that you were the inspiration for so many young students to learn about and “be” in nature. Congratulations to you for a wonderful career, and thank you!

  • John Christopherson
    January 23, 2023 9:21 AM

    Jan, that was an amazing article. Having you as, a Grandmother of our 2 Granddaughters make us ver lucky because they truly have learned so much from you. They have spent so much time outdoors and on trails, it has taught them so much. Of course helping at the Maple Fest has always been one of their favorites, they have loved helping out at it. From 1 Grandparent to you, THANK YOU,

  • Denise Lawrence Healy
    January 26, 2023 3:07 PM

    Dear Jan, wonderful to read your article! Congratulations on your many achievements. I have fond memories of our adventure to Louisiana to fetch the river otters & the thrill of reintroducing them back to Indian Creek. (Glad Rich didn’t know about some of our shenanigans on that journey). Thank you for all of your contributions to ICNC.
    Best wishes to you my friend & fellow “Otter Woman”

  • Annette Mihm Tyalor
    February 10, 2023 9:06 AM


    I so enjoyed working with you during summer camp in 2014! Congratulations on all your accomplishments! You are a true inspiration to many!

    Annette Mihm Taylor


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