In order for students to better observe nature, Chester Elementary School is embarking on the Next Generation Science Standards program, which promotes outdoor learning through hands-on experiences. The elementary school is serving as a model for other schools in Plumas Unified School District.
The California Department of Education adopted the new Outdoor Core curriculum to update and improve the framework for educating students to appreciate science-literacy in an outdoor setting, where they learn to understand how to look more closely at nature and to express wonder at the world around them.
The new standards program is designed to augment classroom work by allowing kids to leave the classroom and enter the field to see life forms in their natural environment.
In consultation with Rob Wade, outdoor education program coordinator/trainer for PUSD, teachers Brooke Geer and Meghan Whalen took their third-graders on a field trip to Mt. Harkness on Sept. 29.
The trip’s objective was to study ecosystems as part of the students’ earth sciences curriculum, and to teach various aspects of environmental science and how it is tied into the ecology of the region.
The outdoor excursion, from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., provided students with information on animal and plant life and how they adapt at different elevations, among other topics.
Once the students arrived at the top of the mountain, they broke into three groups. Each group had a 15-minute session before switching to another activity accompanied by their teachers to learn aspects of the local ecology.
Firefighters Jesse Caney and Demetric Wade, both from Lassen Volcanic National Park, provided information on subject matter such as whether or not fires are good or bad; the answer is both positive and negative, the students learned, depending on how fire affects the environment.
They also heard important tips on how to survive in a wildland fire, finding shelter if lost in the wilderness and how fire helps seed germination.
The students also had the opportunity to try on firefighting gear, which consisted of fire-resistant turnouts, heavy backpacks and headgear. Many students expressed appreciation for what firefighters must wear when fighting a fire.
Another talk was about “Structures for Survival,” which covered how an animal or plant’s body parts help it to survive, reproduce and grow.
The three groups took turns inside the Mount Harkness Lookout tower where they could see four types of volcanoes that were visible from their high vantage point: composite cones, cinder cones, plug dome and shield volcanoes, explained in some detail by USFS staffer Dave LaGroue, who spends 10-day shifts living and working inside the towerat the top of the mountain.
LaGroue clarified to the third-graders the advantage of having towers located on mountain tops throughout the region — to look for early signs of fire so fire crews could be alerted and dispatched early to prevent fires from spreading too rapidly, and hopefully before the fires were out of control.
Students kept records as part of their nature journaling activities, overseen by instructor Whalen, so they could share their findings and personal observations with their fellow students when they returned to the classroom.
Geer said the kids were excited for the opportunity to go outdoors for a day of learning, even though the roughly 3 1/2-mile roundtrip hike to the top of Mt. Harkness and back was something of a challenge for everyone.
“I feel the big takeaway for many of our students was actually being able to see four types of volcanoes from the top of the mountain spread out before them,” she said, as well as having a chance to connect with firefighters, who provided a lot of useful information.
The Next Generation Science Standards program teaches each grade level various aspects of environmental science and how it is tied into the ecology of the region, with Chester Elementary School interim principal John Goolsby pointing out that students have an incredible living laboratory in their own backyard.
He added that schools have access to biologists from the Forest Service, Collins Pine Co., the Bureau of Land Management, Lassen College and the Plumas Audubon Society, among others, all of whom are happy to go on field trips with students to facilitate and answer questions.
Goolsby said that outdoor education program coordinator Wade has been especially helpful in supporting teachers in establishing the new curriculum, adding that students love the opportunity to go outside to further their studies.
Outdoor field trips are every other month, both Geer and Whalen noted, but nearby trips to Chester Meadow or the Collins Pine Trail are twice a month, where their students study local life forms and their habitats.