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MESD distributes kits to kids to substitute for popular week of learning in nature

COURTESY PHOTO: MULTNOMAH COUNTY EDUCATION SERVICE DISTRICT  - Prior to the pandemic, students studied scienc in nature at Outdoor School  This year, the Multnomah Education Service District is sending kits for kids to use at home.

One of the countless casualties of the coronavirus pandemic has been Outdoor School, but the Multnomah Education Service District is creating and distributing Outdoor School kits for students to use as a substitute for the much-loved tradition.

The MESD is handing out 7,500 nature science kits to students across the county who would have gone to Outdoor School this year as an alternative for the cherished nature experience.

"It's no substitute for Outdoor School, but it's something," said Jeff Gehrig, a science teacher at Deep Creek-Damascus K-8 School.

The kits "come in a cool bag and they have a lot of cool stuff. The kids are excited about them," he added.

"Given the circumstances … I would call it a win. I would still much, much rather be at camp and have students have that opportunity," said Lindsey Sullivan, a sixth-grade teacher at Lane Middle School in southeast Portland.

"It's something to do with your hands instead of just being on a computer," she added.

Announcing the program, MESD said, "Since students cannot attend an Outdoor School site this year, ODS will be going to students thanks to ODS staff who determined what would be needed to provide rich ODS-style learning opportunities for students despite schools operating in comprehensive distance learning mode."

COURTESY PHOTO: MULTNOMAH COUNTY EDUCATION SERVICE DISTRICT  - MESD employees assembled the Outdoor School kits outdoors for pandemic safety.

About 450 students at Gresham-Barlow School District's West Orient Middle School, Deep Creek-Damascus K-8 school, Portland's Lane Middle School and Riverdale Grade School were the first to receive the kits.

The next group of schools scheduled to get the gear are in Portland, Centennial and Gresham-Barlow school districts.

The kits contain all kinds of science supplies and instructions for students to do their own experiments and observations. The bags include everything from a pH test kit to owl pellets for dissecting to a magnifying glass. There are safety goggles and even the camp-style "wood cookie" and decorating materials for students to create their own Outdoor School identification necklace with their "camp" alias, which is a popular Outdoor School tradition. COURTESY ART: MULTNOMAH COUNTY EDUCATION SERVICE DISTRICT  - The sets include all sorts of simple equipment for science study and even the supplies for a traditional Outdoor School name tag.

Sullivan said her students have been excited to use the kits. "One student has been testing the pH of random substances in their home, another has shown me the drawings in their journal."

Over a three-week period, students getting the kits will do some of the science learning together in their online classes. They'll also do activities on their own schedule.

MESD instructors will work with the teachers to get the maximum learning out of the experience, said Jennifer Basham, Outdoor School coordinator for the MESD.

"Our goal is to have every class divided into small groups and the staff will do the lessons" live online, Basham said. For example, the popular owl pellet dissection will be done together as a class group.

Gehrig called having the extra MESD instructors a "huge" benefit.

Sullivan said some of her shyer students have been more willing to participate and turn their computer cameras on during the small group Outdoor School lessons.

But what about students who might not live near natural areas and haven't got adult support? How will they manage?COURTESY PHOTO: MULTNOMAH COUNTY EDUCATION SERVICE DISTRICT  - Outdoor School has been a popular part of Oregon kids education for decades as this 1970s eara photo shows.

"Equity has been a key concept as we've been developing our lessons," Basham said.

"We've been really cognizant that we're framing lessons so every student can participate with whatever natural space they have available," she explained. That space could be a parking strip or plants at a nearby school, library or their own apartment complex.

"Outdoor School is making it as accessible as it could be," said teacher Gehrig. "It looks doable even for kids without ready access to nature."

The kits are designed to spur scientific thinking through observation and experiments.

Outdoor School, which has been around in Oregon for more than 60 years, gets sixth and some fifth grade students outdoors for science study immersed in nature. Outdoor School is held in residential camps and can be up to five nights.

For many students, it's a highlight of their school careers. For some students, Outdoor School is the first time they've hiked or spent time in the woods or at the ocean.

During the stay at Outdoor School, students learn about soil, water, plants, animals, the environment and more. COURTESY PHOTO: MULTNOMAH COUNTY EDUCATION SERVICE DISTRICT  - Oh deer! Outdoor School provides all kinds of discoveries for Oregon students.

High school students also act as volunteer counselor/instructors at Outdoor School, which provides a meaningful experience for them. Basham said the virtual effort is also trying to include high schoolers to review programs, make instructional videos and in other ways.

Eventually, the kits will go to students in Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds, Centennial, David Douglas, Parkrose, Riverdale and Portland school districts. The supplies are paid for by state funding secured when voters passed the "Outdoor School for All" measure in 2016.

Part of the goal of the kits is "helping students view themselves as scientists and capable learners," Basham said. And, she added, it's an effort to "keep a bit of the magic of Outdoor School alive."

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