Western MA State Forests & Parks Supporting Nature-Based Education through Community Engagement

Learning through the Lens of Local Habitat at Western MA State Forests & Parks
By Guest Writer, Gini Traub

As a tax-supported agency, DCR’s educational programs are offered free of charge. They are available to public, private, and home school groups, scouts, and adult learners. Here’s a quick run-down of field trip opportunities in the Connecticut River Valley.

When you hear the term, “Field Trip,” what do you think?

Recently I spoke with a teacher at the Christa McAuliffe Regional Charter School in Framingham. This middle school emphasizes expeditionary education with field trips for students. “But we don’t call them field trips,” the teacher said. “Students think a field trip is a day to goof off. We call them field work and field research, just like scientists do.”

I couldn’t agree more, even though I still call them “field trips.” I’m a regional educator for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, the agency that manages the state forests and parks. There is so much to learn and discover in them. And it fits with so much of what’s taught in the classroom.

Why not take classroom learning and see how it’s applied in the field? The subjects can be geology, soils, plants, and ecology. It can be history, too: No matter where we walk in wooded Massachusetts, chances are we will find evidence of past human activity, what I sometimes call hidden history.

None of this is abstraction. This is all hands on. Even better, it takes place in our own (state park) “backyards.” What we learn in the local environment can then be understood in a larger context, be it regional, national, or global.

Probably our most popular field trip is the geology one at Skinner State Park in Hadley and at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. Many teachers find the topic a bit daunting, but it’s one of my favorites. We examine rock layers, the same way I’ve seen geologists do in the field, and we also “play” a bit with the rocks to see how they could have been used as human tools before there was steel. We examine rocks from the lava flow, and we look for evidence of the ice age.


As a tax-supported agency, our educational programs are offered free of charge. They are available to public, private, and home school groups, scouts, and adult learners. Here’s a quick run-down of field trip opportunities in the Connecticut River Valley:

  • This Valley Rocks: Geological History and Landforms of the Connecticut River Valley and Hilltowns at both Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke, and Skinner State Park in Hadley (Grades 3-8, May through mid-October). Take a field walk, looking for examples of rock types, land forms and geological processes. Put observations together in a hands-on demonstration of Valley geohistory. Rock cycle, rock types, landforms, geological processes. Maps, land use, civics.
  • Animals, Habitats, and Human Impacts at Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls (Grades PreK-High school, year round). Life-size, life-like dioramas illustrate the Connecticut River’s 410 mile sweep. They depict the watershed’s varied environments with representative plants, animals and human activities. Timelines and displays give context to the natural and cultural history that makes the river what it is today. A variety of age-appropriate activities are available. Animals, adaptations, classification, habitats, biotic and abiotic factors. Local history. Natural resources. Economic concepts, civics.
  • Dinosaur Detective at Dinosaur Footprints Reservation in Holyoke (Grades 3-7, spring through fall). Simulate the 1802 “discovery” of the footprints. Recreate research done by scientists at the dinosaur trackway. Make observations and draw inferences. This site is owned and managed by Trustees of Reservations with assistance from the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Historic context. Scientific process. Comparative anatomy. Fossils. Observation and inference.
  • Every Forest Tells a Story at Robinson State Park in Agawam (Grades 4-6, May through mid-October). A hike on old roads and footpaths reveals the story of human use and forest disturbance over time. Local history, land use, resource management.
  • Forest Ecology Basics – on a Sandplain at Chicopee State Park in Chicopee ( Grades 4-6, May through mid-October). Determine the “what” and “whys” of a sandplain, see what grows there, and notice the challenges it poses for park management. Soils and geo history. Trees and a sandplain forest ecosystem. Resource management.
  • Local History, Long Ago at Mt. Sugarloaf State Reservation in South Deerfield (grades K-5, mid-May through mid October). Learn exactly what a “sugarloaf” is. Hear the legend of the giant beaver and relate the legend to the landform. Build a human timeline, dating back to the first days of the hotel atop Mt. Sugarloaf. Recreate a bucket brigade, and a fire-fighting technology timeline. Use the view to connect the past with the present. Local history, landforms. Timelines. Myths.
  • Wonderful Wetlands – Aquatic Macro Invertebrate Adaptations (“Ponding”) at Robinson State Park in Agawam and Wendell State Forest in Wendell (Grades 3-8, spring through fall). Sample aquatic environments for animal life. Describe and inventory the results. Look for a variety of physical or behavioral adaptations. Adaptations. Resource management.
  • The Forest in the Park at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke (Grades 3-5, adaptable for preK-8. Early spring to late fall). A forest is an ever-changing, system where living and non-living parts continually interact. Examine some of these components to see what’s in the forest, why some trees have died and what happens to those trees. Take a closer look at heavily used areas; discover what park staff does to prevent changes and why. Plant and animal interactions. Abiotic factors. Resource management.

Other educational opportunities include Sunlight, Soil, Plants and Animals at Erving State Forest, Sunlight, Soil, Plants and Animals at Lake Wyola State Park, Tree Parts and Purposes at Mt. Tom State Reservation, and ‘Tour’ the Eyrie House Hotel’s Ruins also at Mt. Tom State Reservation. Visit DCR Educational Field Trip Opportunities for more info, or contact me at Gini.Traub@state.ma.us; 413-584-6788. I’d love to hear from you!

But wait – there’s more!

Charlie Lotspeich at Holyoke Heritage State Park offers The Human Face of Industrialization, a program on immigration during the heyday of industrial New England. This is no dull lecture. Instead, students take on roles of family members in the different 19th Century ethnic communities. They examine how immigrants’ gender, ethnicity , job and personal decisions affected their lives. For more information, please contact Charlie at 413-534-1723, Charlie.Lotspeich@state.ma.us.

Mt. Greylock State Reservation in north Berkshire County also offers a variety of field trip opportunities. These include guided, semi guided, or self-guided experiences. Check their Resources for Teachers for an overview and check Hilltown Families bi-monthly column, Berkshire Family Fun, for upcoming events at Mt. Greylock. Visitor Services Supervisor Jude Stuhl can be reached at 413-499-4262, Jude.Stuhl@state.ma.us.

Gini Traub is a regional educator for DCR, primarily serving parks in the Connecticut River Valley and western Worcester County.

[Pitchpine at Chicopee State Park. Photo credit: Gini Traub]

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