PUSD Outdoor Education Coordinator Rob Wade, left, shows a tiny, crawly critter on a twig to teachers, clockwise from left, Meghan Whalen, Brooke Geer and Emily Foy during the district’s science education training sessions at the UC Berkeley Forestry Camp. Photos by Roni Java

Science education inspires PUSD teachers to use the environment as a classroom

Instructor Sara Church of Lake Almanor, a retired San Diego teacher, offers tips for teaching Next Generation Science Standards using the state-approved EEI Curriculum.

Deep in the woods at the rustic U.C. Berkeley Forestry Camp in Meadow Valley, Rob Wade was hosting a series of all-day, comprehensive science education seminars for dozens of K-6 teachers with the Plumas Unified School District.

School would begin in a few days and the teachers were gladly giving up some of their summer vacation Aug. 14 through 18 to be part of this in-depth training with Wade, PUSD’s outdoor education coordinator. They were preparing for the Next Generation Science Standards that are fast becoming required learning nationwide.

The afternoon’s guest speaker was Sara Church of Lake Almanor, an environmental education expert who taught elementary school in San Diego for 37 years. Church shared tips on using the state-approved Education and the Environment Initiative Curriculum to teach environment-based lessons in science, history-social studies and English language arts.

“I loved opening my classroom every day,” Church told her fellow teachers. “And what you will love about working with the Next Generation Science standards and EEI Curriculum is how well they foster the process of discovery in your students.”

The training sessions focused on Wade’s acclaimed “Outdoor Core” science education program, which is designed to promote curiosity and a deep sense of environmental stewardship in all PUSD students. By the time each student graduates from high school, they will have hiked all the major peaks in the region and learned about the Feather River watershed as well as the habitats of invertebrates, bugs, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, fish and birds.

In short — by Wade’s design — they will become “mountain kids.”

On a break during one training day, some teachers talked informally about why they enjoy using the mountains, meadows and streams of Plumas County to teach their students about science and other subjects.

“I just love that we can step out our back door and have this Outdoor Core curriculum at our fingertips,” said Meghan Whalen, who teaches a combination second- and third-grade class at Chester Elementary. “Because they live here, our students care about the environment around them. They’re not learning about somewhere far away — some place they might never see or visit.”

Teacher Melissa Groh makes a point during the brainstorming session on Outdoor Core education.

Aletha O’Kelley, also a Chester teacher of second-graders, agreed. “Being able to go outside and learn is really great for teachers and students,” she said. “It’s engaging and you get more buy-in because it’s hands-on for the class.”

Other teachers mentioned that they especially appreciate how the PUSD science program lays a solid foundation from grade to grade and they love the mountain kids concept. They said it helps them teach their students about respecting the environment and to feel a sense of stewardship for the generations to come.

“At the end of the year, we do a restoration project,” said Nicki Rodriguez of Indian Valley Elementary in Greenville, a second-grade teacher. “If we’re studying about mammals, we have to think about a way to help a specific mammal’s habitat. So we might talk about planting a willow tree for the beavers to use to build their homes. Later, the students can go back and say, ‘We planted that tree.’ And the older grades may have built a birdhouse and put it into that tree, and so the habitat protection continues on and it carries beyond the grades we are each teaching.”

O’Kelley summed up the excitement she and fellow teachers feel about science and the PUSD Outdoor Core program.

“That’s my favorite part with our students,” she said, “The learning and understanding how it all works together.”

Discussing a key issue about students learning science concepts are, from left, teachers Tenaya Kooyman and Alexandra Cone.