Hands-On Is Best Way to Learn About Nature

By Stan Friedman

SCOTTS VALLEY, CA (May 10, 2012) – The 150 fifth graders from the Oakland Public School District exited the buses that had taken them to Mission Springs Camp and Conference Center recently and saw something they had only read about in books or seen on television – trees all around them. Giant redwoods at that.

They were in awe. “They are just struck by the beauty,” says Jeremy Geels, director of the Mission Springs Outdoor Education (MSOE) program. Click here to see more photos.

The group was the latest to participate in MSOE, which gives students the opportunity to study nature in ways that would not otherwise be available to them. Naturalists guide the students’ learning during the three-day experience.

The camp hosts 3,500 students from Christian and public schools throughout the year, says Geels. Last week’s trip was part of a partnership with Science Horizons, a project of the Faith Network of the East Bay.

Randy Roth, former pastor of First Covenant Church in Oakland, started the Faith Network organization in 2001. The network is a collaboration of organizations, congregations, businesses, educators, and other individuals who invest time and other resources to improve the whole health of children and families.

The Mission Springs experience is a centerpiece of Science Horizons, Roth says.

Through the cooperative work of Science Horizons and Mission Springs, the students engage in activities that relate to California State Science Standards for life, earth, and environmental science. The curriculum begins with pre-camp classroom lessons and ends with a follow-up lesson in which the students choose an environmental project to showcase what they have learned.

Among the activities, students do a stream study, taking water samples to test for PH and turbidity, while also looking for invertebrates, which they collect and later examine under a video microscope. The animals they find will help them determine the health of the stream.

The campers also try their hands on the climbing wall and enjoy campfires. On the last day, the students are taken to the wharf in Santa Cruz, where they learn about marine mammals such as the sea lions that often are present. They also dissect squid.

The students complete several hikes together, including one at night. During that hike, they do a brief individual hike in the dark without a flashlight. Sometimes the moonlight illuminates their way, but the assistance isn’t always available.

“It’s like 30 seconds,” says Geels. A naturalist escorts the students to a spot on the trail and then asks them to find their way back. “It helps them to overcome their fear of the night,” he adds.

The program has demonstrated other benefits, as well. According to Faith Network, students who participate in the program tend to score higher on the California standardized test. The test was given this week.

Geels says that teachers demonstrate their belief in the value of the outdoor education by bringing the students a week before the test rather than spending all of that time preparing them more broadly for the exam.

The outdoor education experience is not just about helping them pass the standardized test. “It opens the kids to the sheer joy of wonder,” observes Bryan Hayes, Missions Springs executive director.

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