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SMSU to Host Master Naturalist Class This Spring

Published Friday, March 15, 2024

Will Thomas
Will Thomas

SMSU will host “Prairies, Potholes and Streams” U of M Extension Minnesota Master Naturalist Class Taught by Candace and Will Thomas

The campus of Southwest Minnesota State University is the host site for “Prairies, Potholes and Streams in Southwest Minnesota,” a Minnesota Master Naturalist Class from the University of Minnesota Extension. Instructors for the class are Marshall residents, Candace and Will Thomas.

The class will be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning April 9 and continuing through May 9 from 6:00-8:30 p.m. for a total of 12 evening sessions plus two all-day Saturday field trips on April 20 and May 5. The cost of the class is $295 and includes course manuals and supplies.

“We are excited to share what we have learned about this beautiful prairie and also to learn from our students,” said Candace. “We will engage in outdoor and in-class learning, practicing ways to interpret natural history with others of all ages.”

About the class:

Minnesota’s remaining prairie grasslands and wetlands are still visible across the western and southern areas of the state. Participants in the class will learn more about the “Prairie and Pothole” (P&P) biome as well as current efforts to conserve and restore prairie and wetland habitats. With the instructors and guest experts, the class will explore the prairie, its wetlands, and streams through classroom, lab, and outdoor field experiences. Class participants are welcome to prairie knowledge and experiences with the class and ask questions!

During class time and outdoors, participants will practice using several environmental learning tools. In addition to the course text, other useful resources to enhance your continued learning about Minnesota’s P&P biome. Guest speakers will share knowledge and expertise about specific aspects of the prairie (past, present, and future).

Everyone participates in required group capstone projects identified by local community partners. Students will have several options from which to choose. Some class time will be set aside for this, but groups will meet/communicate outside of class as well. Capstone projects will be presented the last week of class followed by a graduation celebration. Upon completion of the course, graduates are eligible to volunteer as a Master Naturalist to share the prairie’s story with others.

The class will explore outdoor resources on the Southwest Minnesota State University campus and nearby each week and have required all-day field trips on Saturday, April 20 and Sunday, May 5. The class will visit state parks and scientific and natural areas (SNAs), national wetland and refuge areas, and cultural sites. Please inform instructors before the class begins of any accessibility or mobility needs regarding outdoor activities. SMSU is an accessible facility.

“While many people in this area are already engaged in preserving and teaching about the prairie, this is the first time to have a master naturalist class taught here at SMSU,” said Will.

Spaces are limited, so enroll early. To register for the course or to apply for a scholarship, visit:

For more information, contact Will Thomas at or 507-537-7392.

About the instructors:

Candace Thomas grew up exploring the Carolina biomes but was excited to learn about prairies when she moved to Minnesota in 1991. She became a Master Naturalist in 2021 and a Master Naturalist Instructor in 2023. She has been a STEM literacy teacher or volunteer with children, families, and adults since 1986. Natural history was one of her specialties as a research librarian, and she integrated local natural history in her work with English learners. In 2018, she returned to school to add an environmental science major and biology minor to her degrees. Her passions include wetland ecology, historical geology, native plants, pollinators, bird migration, and community science.

Will Thomas recently completed his Master Naturalist instructor course. He has taught accounting, finance, and business ethics since 1981 and has been active in corporate social and environmental responsibility work since 1999. He is one of the first college profs in Minnesota to design and teach an Environmental Accounting course. He has been a STEM literacy volunteer since 2012 and became a Master Naturalist in 2023. He is fascinated with dragonflies and damselflies and enjoys identifying them. His other areas of interest include climate change, GIS tools for environmental monitoring, and restoration of natural areas.

Candace and Will Thomas are trustees of the Adam S. Thomas Foundation for Nature. They launched the foundation after their son, Adam, was killed in Afghanistan in October 2016. Adam earned undergraduate degrees in environmental science and biology before joining the Army. He was passionate about science and nature.

“Being able to teach this class allows our family to fulfill a personal commitment in memory of our son, Adam; to continue sharing his love of the natural world, and to engage people in environmental learning,” they said.  




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