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Ozark Natural Science Center 

Sparking a love of the outdoors.

click to enlarge HAPPY ASP GASPS: Children in Kristina Burja's  class at the ONSC stand back from the snake she's picked up. - COURTESY ONSC
  • Courtesy ONSC
  • HAPPY ASP GASPS: Children in Kristina Burja's class at the ONSC stand back from the snake she's picked up.

This writer has loved the Ozark Natural Science Center outside Huntsville since we took our child on an owl walk there many years ago. I don't remember if we heard any owls, but I do remember watching her bite into a Wint-O-Green Lifesaver candy and seeing it spark. And getting up close and personal with a snake. And taking a hike with the late great botanist Carl Hunter. And the Ozark landscape, the lodge, the porch with the big rocking chairs. How great, I thought, that this place, tucked away on 90 acres within the state's 300-acre Bear Hollow Natural Area, surrounded by 15,000 acres of wildlife management areas, exists for children and adults alike.

These days, the ONSC has even more to offer. There are still the zillions of school children who get to spend the night in its lodges and hike and learn about geology and plants and birds and things that creep and swim. (There is no more caving, unfortunately, because of white-nosed syndrome, a fungal infection that is causing widespread die-offs of American bat populations.) But there are also workshops for what you might call interior nature, such as journaling, yoga, music, art and cultural history. The entire facility, in fact, can be rented out for special events deep in the woods of Madison County.

Children and adults can also take part in citizen science of the first order at ONSC, helping with the Northern saw-whet owl research being conducted by University of Arkansas student and birding prodigy Mitchell Pruitt, or help the UA's Dr. Steven Beaupre with his research into timber rattlesnakes. (The latter involves collecting and counting hickory nuts and acorns to correlate with winter populations rather than getting up close and personal with a rattler.)

The ONSC was founded in 1990 by Ken and RuAnn Ewing of Rogers and has held residential programs since 1992. The outdoor science classes for elementary and secondary students are tailored to track with Arkansas school standards and are taught by members of ONSC staff, each bringing his or her own particular expertise to bear, Executive Director Matthew Miller said. Most of the students are in grades 4 through 6; they get to spend two full days and a night tramping the 8 miles of trails and enjoying special programming and a campfire at night. (One class is called "Hunger Games," and teaches kids about the food web.) "They are running and playing and learning at the same time," Miller said.

Most students are from Northwest Arkansas, but ONSC works to get children from more distant areas of the state by matching up schools with funders. (The Murphy Oil Corp. helped subsidize a trip by students from El Dorado, for example, and the Walton Family Foundation donations keep tuition down. "We are always looking to keep tuition assistance available," Miller said).

"It's amazing. You get the students out here and they've never been hiking or seen wildlife. They've never been outside of a city. ... It's their first time in a creek, to see a night sky without light, to hear owls ... so many firsts." The kids also help out at dinner in the Ewing Center, with some serving as table helpers, sometimes a new experience for them. "And we have students who they might get a bowl of soup at home or might not have supper," Miller said.

To donate to the Ozark Natural Science Center so more kids can hike to Teakettle Falls, see the stars, track owls and create a little triboluminescence by biting into a Lifesaver, go to onsc.us and click on "Give the Gift of Nature." ONSC has a shop as well; your purchases also help support the nonprofit.

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