Mother Nature’s classroom
Place-based education thrives at Yampa Valley Science School
Steamboat Springs Middle School science teachers Matt Tredway and Matt Anderson watched from the periphery Wednesday as their sixth-graders poured out of several cabins on the Perry-Mansfield campus into an open field.
The students formed a large circle before dispersing into four groups, with which they would spend the remainder of the afternoon studying soil, water, plants and animals in a living, wall-less classroom — Mother Nature herself.
“We could be teaching this stuff in a classroom or out here in the real deal,” Tredway said. “But there’s no comparison. This is full immersion, hands-on.”
In fact, Tredway and Anderson didn’t really have to teach at all last week, when the sixth-graders spent four days and three nights at Perry-Mansfield as part of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps’ Yampa Valley Science School.
Nor will they have to reteach any of the lessons taught during the school, Tredway said.
“We won’t teach it in class,” Tredway said. “This is it. It’s taught so well here.”
Run like an overnight camp, the science school will host about 200 Routt County sixth-graders this fall on the sprawling Perry-Mansfield campus, where a network of hiking and horse trails leads students and program leaders from one learning activity to the next.
Seated next to gurgling Soda Creek on river rocks shaped by millions of years of weathering, the group of 20 students spent part of Wednesday discussing photosynthesis, oxygen, water and how all three affect nature’s life cycle.
Tucked among shady creekside trees, the group lesson was led by five volunteers — two AmeriCorps-trained senior leaders and three Steamboat Springs High School students. Hypotheses written by each student in his or her journal foreshadowed water-quality tests the students would perform on water from the creek and from a nearby stagnant pond.
Across the creek and seated in an open meadow, another group of students discussed the fall foliage and the scientific processes behind the change in leaf color.
“This is such a great opportunity for these kids,” Anderson said.
And science isn’t the school’s only focus, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps Program Director Avrom Feinberg said.
With the help of a 45-page journal, students must complete six primary academic blocks: observation, soils, water, plants, animals and reflection. In addition, duties such as cabin cleaning and meal preparation teach and reinforce important life skills and responsibilities, Feinberg said. Journal work also incorporates reading, writing and math.
The students, who are under the constant supervision of the AmeriCorps and high school leaders, stay in unheated cabins, dine on food prepared by a local caterer and are entertained nightly by campfire sing-alongs and stories.
“It is fun,” Feinberg said of the school, “but it’s a serious academic program.”
Each academic block is nearly three hours long and invariably involves experiments and hands-on activities.
All three Routt County school districts have embraced the program since it began five years ago under the vision of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps Executive Director Gretchen Van De Carr. Van De Carr used the platform of a Eugene, Ore., science school for sixth-graders as a starting point for the Yampa Valley Science School.
The academic work meets state content standards, and the Yampa Valley Science School continually updates and revises its program with input from teachers, parents and students, Feinberg said.
“It’s now accepted as part of the sixth-grade experience at all three school districts,” Feinberg said.
The school is funded largely by a $110 student fee, which covers all aspects of the program. Organizations such as Routt County United Way, AmeriCorps and Yampa Valley Community Foundation also have provided funding over the years. The school similarly has been boosted by help from partnering agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado State Parks and The Nature Conservancy.
A scholarship program is offered to families who can’t afford to send their sixth-grader to the science school, and many parents volunteer to pay additional money to help pay the tuition for other kids, Feinberg said.
And the school’s setting is hard to beat, he said.
“Perry-Mansfield has been awesome to work with,” Feinberg said. “The campus works well for us, and the schedule works well for them. It’s a collaborative effort.”
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Time seemed to stop for Matthew Engle for a few seconds after he heard crunching metal last week while he was in downtown Steamboat Springs.