A different learning environment | SteamboatToday.com

A different learning environment

Steamboat, Hayden middle school students are taught about -- and in -- nature

Susan Cunningham

On Tuesday afternoon, with gray clouds looming overhead, a group of sixth-graders sat in a circle in the middle of an aspen grove.

They shared facts they already knew about aspens –that their roots are connected to form one huge organism, that the powdery stuff on their bark is a good sunscreen — and listed how the area looked different than the stream banks they had visited that morning. All the while, yellow leaves fluttered above them in the breeze.

The students were taking part in the Yampa Valley Science School, which has been going on for three weeks at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp. Rocky Mountain Youth Corps created the school in 2000.

Sixth-graders from Hayden Middle School attended the first week, followed by sixth-graders from Steamboat Springs Middle School during the next two weeks. They ate, slept and played in the environment, while they learned about it.

A senior leader working Tues–day with the students in the aspen grove reminded the students of the opportunity they had that week: “You’re out here, you are experiencing it, you’re not looking at words on a chalkboard,” Sarah Womer said.

In one week at Science Sch–ool, about 170 students learned about four ecosystems — riparian, meadows, aspens and conifers.

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On the first day, they learned skills for being attentive and observant in an outdoor classroom, and at the end of the week, a human element is tied in to show how people have changed the environment over time by living in it.

The program culminates in a service project. This year, students are planting native vegetation along an interpretive nature trail at the Yampa River State Park.

Throughout the week, students did hands-on activities, such as mixing soil with water and testing how the soil changes the water’s pH and measuring the lifespan of a tree by counting tree rings.

Steamboat six–th-grader Matthew Jones said Tuesday that he had learned about identifying plants in a meadow. This–tles are pretty obvious because they hurt when they’re touched, and sagebrush looks like a big bushy hairstyle and has crooked stems, he said.

“It kind of makes it a little more fun, because you can tell what’s what and it’s not like, ‘Look, it’s a bush,'” he said.

“It feels like camp, just really fun camp,” sixth-grader Callie Hvambsal said. She said she was learning a lot, “but in a more fun way than school.”

The camp tuition is $125 per student, and businesses and individuals provide scholarship funds for students who cannot afford that cost. The tuition covers only half of the operating cost, which means the remaining $20,000 must be raised through donations, said Sheila Wright, development director for Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.

High school junior leaders, college volunteers and Ameri–Corps mentors work during the three-week period to make the camp possible.

The method of education is place-based and experiential. Sudents learn in an environment they already know while being a part of it, said Casey Bradley, who has been the camp manager for the past three years and helped redesign the curriculum for the school two years ago.

“If you use what’s familiar to kids to teach them unfamiliar concepts, they’re going to understand that a lot better,” Bradley said. “If you can tie it to a kid’s life, it’s going to make a lot more sense.”

The previous curriculum highlighted water, soil, plants and animals. Now, because curriculum is based on four ecosystems, students can see how all of those pieces interact.

Bradley aims for students to walk away with a better understanding of the environment and how it works. He also hopes that students who may not learn well in a classroom have a chance to shine, and can realize that they are good learners who might just need to learn in a different way.

And, because students live together for a week, social boundaries that they might form in school are broken down, giving them a chance to hang out with people they might not otherwise, Bradley said.

— To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail scunningham@steamboatpilot.com