This year marks the 50th anniversary of VINS—the Vermont Institute of
Natural Science. It’s a milestone worthy of celebration, a long and
successful history focused on environmental education and characterized
by steady growth that shows no sign of abating. From its roots in a 1970
community education campaign that led to the cleanup of the heavily
polluted Ottauquechee River, to the creation of an environmental
education curricula for children that has been adopted across the
county, to the 2019 completion of its fascinating Canopy Walk and the
opening this year of its newly expanded Songbird Aviary, VINS has never
strayed from its mission or missed an opportunity to diversify its
programs and reach a larger audience.
The Evolution of Environmental Education
VINS’ success shows in its popularity: the VINS Nature Center recorded
24,000 visitors in FY 2015; in FY 2022 they recorded 69,800. When you
add to this the students and teachers in classroom programs, the
children and adults in outreach programs, and the summer camp
participants, you discover that the total engagement in FY 2022 was a
very impressive 83,937 people of all ages, despite a temporary drop in
2020–21 due to COVID.
But there is more to this success than merely growing the numbers. The
scope and nature of environmental education has changed over the years,
Executive Director Charlie Rattigan says, and VINS has evolved with it.
Charlie uses VINS’ school programs to illustrate: “The evolution began
at the time when VINS was sending parents and other volunteers into
local classrooms to engage children directly with the environment in
hands-on, interactive explorations using the ELF curriculum.”
VINS created ELF—Environmental Learning for the Future—in its first
decade and, Charlie says, “the response from students and teachers was
tremendous.” VINS went on to describe the ELF methodology in the
award-winning book Hands on Nature, which is still in print and in use
throughout the country.
In the meantime, methods both for teaching environmental education and
for teaching young children have matured, and VINS’ programs have
matured with them. “The presentation has evolved from a volunteer model
to an educator model,” Charlie explains. VINS’ curriculum is still
inventive, inquiry-based, and very hands-on, but it now integrates STEM
learning and is aligned with Common Core State Standards and Next
Generation Science Standards.
The new VINS curricula include professional development training and
resources for classroom teachers as well. Outreach programs for families
were also developed, and the Conservation Biology program, formed to
support the protection of endangered species in Vermont and forest bird
monitoring, morphed into a new format that is presently integrated into
the Overnight Nature Camp program at VINS’ Old Pepper Place Nature
Reserve in Washington, Vermont.
More Space, More Opportunities
The Raptor Center in Woodstock followed its own evolutionary path. It
was conceived in 1982 as both a bird rehabilitation center and an
educational space. When it opened to the public in 1987, the bird
infirmary was kept behind the scenes while the Raptor Exhibit took
center stage, allowing visitors of all ages to engage face to face with
some of the most awe-inspiring animals who live in the surrounding
forests and to learn their natural histories at the same time.
The spider web is a feature on the Canopy Walk.
By the mid 1990s, it was already obvious to the VINS planners that the
Woodstock location was too small for the many educational opportunities
that were being proposed. A new 47-acre location was found in Quechee
and purchased in 2001, and the new and newly renamed VINS Nature Center
opened in 2004.
The Nature Center, with its rolling forest land and the nearby river and
lake, had room for more and larger indoor exhibit spaces, a larger
Raptor Exhibit, the new Forest Exhibit and Adventure Playspace, an
outdoor classroom, summer camp programs, and nature trails, each
designed to engage and educate more people about all facets of the local
environment and the animals that live there. Children could learn what
it was like for a bear or a bobcat to move through the forest and,
watching them, parents and other family members could learn to see the
forest in a new way, through the eyes of a child. This evolution
continued even through the COVID years with the development and opening
of the Canopy Walk and, just this year, the new, larger Songbird Aviary.
As with the VINS raptors and other exhibit and educational birds, the
Songbird Aviary contains birds from the rehabilitation program that have
been injured to an extent that they could not survive being released
into the wild. The new aviary is 2,160 square feet larger than the
original in order to accommodate more birds and more species.
solely with native species arranged to recreate a forest floor
environment, supplied with water sources for drinking and bathing, the
aviary currently has temporary poles for perching while the vegetation
grows to its full height. Visitors to the aviary can see and hear
mourning doves, waxwings, white-throated sparrows, robins, and cardinals
in a natural environment, a list that will grow as new non-releasable
birds graduate from the rehabilitation program.
The Evolution Continues
“The gestalt of VINS,” Charlie likes to say, “is that the whole is
greater than the sum of the parts. Any part in isolation from the rest,
no matter how interesting it is alone, is not as important as the
combined experience that VINS offers. The Canopy Walk is striking and
beautiful but it’s not as significant to the visitor without the
opportunity to come off the Canopy Walk onto the Forest Exhibit, Raptor
Enclosures, and Songbird Aviary to meet some of the animals that live in
the canopy. The summer camps wouldn’t exist without the trails and play
spaces of the Nature Center.”
And the evolution continues. The VINS educators, now well trained in
early childhood education, have recently implemented two new programs,
Small Wonders (ages 3 to 5 years) and Wee Wonders (ages 18 months to 3
years). Wee Wonders, Charlie reports, though only in its second year, is
already being highly sought out. Meanwhile, a new exhibit space is
already in the works at the Nature Center, and Charlie says they are
aiming for 100,000 visitors per year.
“Our recent and continued growth stems from the vision of the board,
supporters, and staff back in 2000 and 2001,” he says, “when they
decided to move from Woodstock to the larger compound in Quechee and
build the new center. That vision has taken VINS to an exciting place,
and we’re not at full capacity yet.”
There is room to grow at VINS, and new generations coming along who can
benefit from the high-quality environmental education VINS presents. So
here’s to the first 50 years, and to the next 50, too, They’re already
in the works.
Vermont Institute of Natural Science
149 Natures Way
VINS Nature Center is open 10 am–5 pm daily