Using nature as a classroom
Editor's note: This story has been revised to more accurately reflect the results of a ballot measure passed in 2016.
Lake Oswego sixth-graders recently spent a week outside of their classrooms, exploring nature and learning about science in a hands-on environment that their teachers say left students excited and inspired.
"The hands-on ecology makes Outdoor School an incredible learning experience," says Fred Rodgers, a sixth-grade science teacher at Lake Oswego Junior High. "Being out in nature creates teachable moments that we could never duplicate in the classroom."
Lake Oswego Junior High students attended Outdoor School at Trickle Creek northwest of Salem and Cedar Ridge in Vernonia during the week of Oct. 2. Lakeridge Junior High students spent the previous week at Cedar Ridge, as well as at Camp Magruder in Rockaway Beach.
Thanks to a ballot measure passed by voters in November 2016, funds from the Oregon Lottery make it possible for thousands of students in the state to attend Outdoor School. It's a voluntary program, but every fifth- and sixth-grader would be able to take advantage of the offer every year once the measure is fully funded by the Legislature.
At Outdoor School, students participate in activities such as "hikes, water-quality testing, plant identification, squid dissection and creating models," says LJH sixth-grade science teacher Catherine Melton. "For example, (they made) a map of Oregon in the sand, and acted out how the moon affects the tides."
The field studies at Outdoor School are divided up into four categories: earth, forest, animals and water. The earth lessons involve the sand map and other activities; the forest category includes a native and invasive plant identification lesson, as well as a hike throughout the forest. In the animal lesson, students dissect a squid and search for mole crabs on the beach, while the water lesson has students test water quality, model the water cycle and catch and identity freshwater invertebrates.
Melton says that the experiences students get at Outdoor School are valuable and simply can't be gained inside a classroom.
"They are able to learn in a way that is much more engaging than reading a text book," she says.
An added bonus of Outdoor School is that it doesn't touch the student's lives only once. Many go on to become camp counselors in high school, teaching younger students and leading them throughout their day. Julia Lininger-White, who is currently a junior at Lake Oswego High School, is one of this year's counselors; she spent her October week at the Cedar Ridge campsite.
Lininger-White says she decided to be an Outdoor School counselor because of her interest in teaching and spending time outdoors. She says Outdoor School "seemed like
an ideal way to combine nature and a career I may pursue."
Counselors' duties include leading educational hikes, playing bonding games with the students and creating "cabin calls" — short, individualized songs for each cabin.
Lininger-White says she enjoyed teaching the students about ecology in its natural setting.
"I think being outdoors gave the kids a good change of learning environment," she says.
A week at Outdoor School is ripe with learning, but that's not all Rodgers likes about taking his students to camp.
"One of my favorite parts of the Outdoor School experience is the bonding a week of camp creates, he says. "New friendships are formed and old friendships strengthened."