Yampa Valley Science School offers sixth graders chance to learn, grow

John F. Russell
Steamboat Springs sixth graders (right to left) Kelsey Hamilton, Paige Watson, Jordan Ward and Ellery Hodges listen as a staff member talks about the biosphere at the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp on Tuesday morning as part of the Yampa Valley Science School.
John F. Russell

— On Tuesday, sixth-grade students from the Steamboat Springs Middle School gathered among the aspen trees at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp, treating the space as if it were any other classroom.

Yampa Valley Science School program manager Jaiya Ellis was hoping the students would find signs of decomposition as part of a class on the biosphere, but on a deeper level, she was also hoping that the young students would uncover something much more meaningful — a love of science.

“I’m hoping that this is the kind of experience they will take with them the rest of their lives,” Ellis said. “I’m hoping that this is something they will remember forever.”

For the staff that leads the three weeks of camps from the Yampa Valley Science School, this little corner of Strawberry Park on the edges of Steamboat Springs is a very important classroom, one that offers sixth graders the chance to break into middle school on a positive note and expand their views of science.

Several staff members were seniors at Steamboat Springs High School who signed up to help run this year’s camp. In volunteering their time, they were hoping to pass along some of the lessons they learned at the Yampa Valley Science School just a few years before when they were in sixth grade.

“It’s so cool to listen to our helpers talk about the things they did when they attended the Yampa Valley Science School,” Ellis said. “There is no question that the camp left an impression on them, and they were eager to come back and help out this year.”

By the end of the week, Yampa Valley Science School will have hosted 280 sixth-grade students from across Routt County. This year’s science school began three weeks ago, when students from Hayden, South Routt, North Routt, Emerald Mountain School and Heritage Christian School attended the first week of camps. The past two weeks have been dedicated to students from Steamboat Springs Middle School, which has a class of nearly 180 sixth graders.

The students spend five days at the school, beginning with an orientation day Monday. On Tuesday morning, the students arrive with sleeping bags in hand and spend the next three nights living in cabins with classmates. The days are filled with science, with students exploring the grounds at Perry-Mansfield and taking field trips to Dry Lake Campground and the Yampa River Botanic Park. There are plenty of activities to keep the students busy at night. On Friday, the students wrap up what they have learned and head back to school with their bags, their completed science camp books and the memories that come along with the experience.

Ellis said the camp is structured around three areas of learning, including the hydrosphere, biosphere and a combination of the geosphere and atmosphere.

“We basically touch on all the things that these students will learn over the course of the school year,” Ellis said. “That way, the teachers can draw on what they experienced here as part of their in class education.

Ellis said one of the goals of the school is to get students out of the classroom and into a place they can explore science first-hand.

Students learn about the hydrosphere, the science and study of life around water, and the biosphere, the study of the science and life in our everyday world. The school also touches on the geosphere, the study of rocks and rock formations, and the atmosphere, which includes weather and astronomy.

“I think one of the really cool things is that these students get to be outside in nature when they can learn science hands-on,” Ellis said. “Here at the Yampa Valley Science School, a grove of aspen trees can easily become a classroom.”

This was the final week of the Yampa Valley Science School, which has become an annual rite of passage for sixth graders in Routt County and a valuable teaching tool for area schools.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966

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