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North Hall Middle teams with Chestatee Wildlife Preserve
Students helping preserve with various projects
North Hall Middle School seventh-graders observe a zebra enclosure Tuesday at the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve. The school has partnered with the preserve for a STEM project. - photo by Kristen Oliver

Seventh-graders from North Hall Middle School spent their Tuesday morning asking questions and taking notes alongside tigers, bears and cockatoos.

The middle school partnered with Chestatee Wildlife Preserve to give students a hands-on experience in their science, technology, engineering and math curriculum.

“We’re a STEM exploration school,” said North Hall Middle teacher Michelle Hood. “So what we wanted to do is partner to do authentic STEM projects. So each grade has gotten together with a partner in the area.”

Because seventh-graders take life science, the school reached out to the preserve for a partnership. The sixth grade, which takes earth science, partnered with Don Carter State Park, and the eighth grade, which takes physical science, is partnered with Carroll Daniel Construction, which is building a new performing arts center at North Hall High School.

“We want them to use their scientific inquiry methods and solve problems,” Hood said. “It may not necessarily be on their own, but helping to solve problems, by doing research and using the scientific method.”

The seventh-graders spent Tuesday morning touring the preserve and taking notes about all the animals, including white and golden Siberian tigers, a pair of gray wolves, a fennec fox, a wide variety of birds, multiple zebras, two grizzly bears, an undersized black bear and much more.

The preserve was founded by C.W. Wathen, who didn’t plan to share the animals with the public.

“Our intention was never to be open as a zoo; we were just going to rescue animals,” Wathen said. “But we opened up to some children with cancer once and saw how it just opened all the children’s eyes. From that day on — and that was about 28 years ago now — we’ve never closed our doors to the general public.”

The preserve is a nonprofit entirely depending on private funding, donations and visitors. It receives no funding for each animal it rescues.

Hood said she and the students wanted to help the preserve educate the public about the animals it benefits.

“We wanted to get information about these animals out there to the public so they know what’s here when they walk around,” Hood said. “So every two students is assigned an animal, and they are going to completely research the animal, know everything about it and do podcasts for each animal.”

The students are also broken into groups and assigned a project to benefit the preserve. One group is designing new toys and activities for the numerous primates at the preserve. Another group is designing similar enrichment for the birds, and a third group is helping to design a new feeding system for the bird habitat.

Seventh-grader Kristen Dowdy said she loved spending the morning at the preserve. She got to hold an albino Burmese python — something she always wanted to do.

Her classmate Andrew Jones said he enjoyed the preserve because the animals are calm and friendly. Laura Ware said she enjoyed learning about each animal’s habitat.

Emma Chester agreed.

“I have enjoyed seeing what they’re doing and how they didn’t necessarily mean to start any of this, but from the kindness of their hearts started taking in animals and are now providing them a home,” Chester said.

Grayson Kirby said he was impressed by the constant care the animals receive.

“They never stop,” he said. “I’ve helped on farms, and it’s constant. You can’t skip a day. I imagine vacation isn’t something that exists for them, because it’s an everyday thing.”

Hood said she was thrilled to see how engaged the students were, not only in the wildlife, but in the lessons and opportunity to help.

“We are just so excited that it makes their standards come to life,” Hood said.