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Belwin Conservancy unveils new look for education center

Organizers at the Belwin Conservancy in Afton are hoping that a newly built roof will lead to less wintertime slips and falls both for the people who work there and the thousands of St. Paul Public Schools students who visit the nature center each year.

On Thursday, the conservancy revealed the $60,000 exterior remodeling project of its Belwin Outdoor Science's education center. Newly appointed SPPS Superintendent John Thein, along with two dozen or so J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School students, attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renovation.

In one of his first public outings since being named the school's interim superintendent this summer, Thein spoke about the the 45-year partnership between St. Paul Schools and the conservancy. For many of the students, it was also their first time visiting the conservancy.

Since the building was built in the 1970s, the conservancy's board of directors tasked its architect with designing a roof that looks like it has always been there. The organization raised funds last year through various grants and member donations to cover the costs.

The project took six weeks and is the first of a number of exterior projects, including a new kitchen and updated bathroom.

The new roof wicks water off to the sides and into a stormwater pond on the western side of the Education Center's entrance. In the past, students and adults entering and exiting were prone to wintertime slips and falls.

"In the winter, it would dam-up with ice and rain would drip on the students as they came in," Belwin Conservancy Executive Director Nancy Kafka said. "This has been problematic from almost the beginning."

The new roof, as well as other interior projects, are the first of a number of future projects Kafka said she hopes to accomplish in the coming years.

Josh Leonard, Belwin Outdoor Science's education director, said the new roof may be an opportunity to teach kids about stormwater ponds.

"We can teach them sometimes when water goes one place it's good and sometimes it's bad," he said.

Leonard added that the SPPS has emphasised this approach to teaching science when students come to Belwin, so that they understand how nature works so they can form their own hypothesis rather than teaching students to repeat facts

"That's really the kind of science we want to teach them," he said.

Belwin is also located in a unique spot, Leonard said, because it sits between three of Minnesota's biomes, including deciduous forest, tallgrass aspen parkland and prairie grassland. "It's like they're traveling across the state," he said.

The conservancy provides outdoor science education for every third- and fifth-grader in St. Paul Public Schools and accounts for about 10 percent of the students' science contact time.

Last year, 12,744 SPPS students came to Afton for science classes, as well as roughly 8,500 students with special needs.

Kafka said she hopes to harden the trails that connect the education center with its lower education classroom so students with disabilities can access the two buildings along the trails instead of using a vehicle.

She said that improvement, though, may not come for some time and she still has to weigh the potential environmental impacts to hardening the dirt trails throughout the 1,400-acre nature preserve.