Steamboat Springs There was an excitable band of mud warriors dashing through an aspen grove in Strawberry Park on Tuesday morning.
The "warriors" were sixth-grade students from middle schools in Hayden and Steamboat Springs. They were among 96 students who were participating in a two-day science school at Euzoa Conference and Retreat Center sponsored by Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and the Legacy Education Initiative.
Their faces streak with brown mud the very same mud that minutes earlier had been the object of intense scientific investigation the sixth-graders snaked through the colorful aspen trees on a perfect September morning.
"We're mud warriors!" Shirley Vazquez cried out. But there's more to mud than first meets the eye.
"We learned what the dirt has in it," said Vazquez, a student at Hayden Middle School. "The hole we dug had acid in it."
Several groups of students had dug pits among the aspen trees. Lying on their bellies in the shade, they probed different layers of soil with a meat thermometer to measure its temperature. And they took samples to test it for its acidity, or pH, and nitrogen content.
The sixth-graders weren't working with their regular classroom teachers. Instead, they were being guided in their scientific explorations by older students high school students from both school districts who served as junior leaders, and older students from Colorado Mountain College who served as senior leaders. The school included an overnight stay on Monday night, allowing them to eat, sleep and breathe natural science for 48 hours.
Jon O'Neill was one of the CMC students helping the sixth-graders learn about soils. His group was carefully noting the varying color of the different soil layers beneath the surface and its composition.
"Write the temperature of that layer in your journals," O'Neill instructed his group.
Asked if all dirt is the same, Hayden sixth-grader Christopher Hainault was emphatic.
No!" Hainault said. "Some dirt has all kinds of organic matter in it."
"There's dirt that has more clay than sand, and different soils have more rock," pointed out Tyler Manzanares, another Hayden student. "If you want dirt that's packable, you want more clay."
Gretchen Van de Carr of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps said the interaction among students of different ages is part of the benefit of the science camp.
"This year, instead of hiring adults to work as leaders, we found our senior leaders at CMC," Van de Carr said. "I think that's just the greatest. This program is about creating links. Links from the kids to the environment. Links among generations, with the older students, and links with communities throughout the valley."
Ryan Grube, a CMC student studying natural resources and outdoor leadership, was helping a group of students study invertebrate pond life. He was impressed with the inquisitiveness of the sixth-graders.
"They're so into it," Grube said. "They're smart, but what they don't know, they're not afraid of it."
The students focused on pond life were divided into four sub-groups named after different aquatic insects the caddis flies, mayflies, dragonflies and midges.
The mayflies were gathered on a sunny wooden deck on the banks of a pond that was perfectly calm, its surface broken only by a scattering of yellow willow leaves.
Grube coaxed them through a workbook that brought out the ways different characteristics of the water would affect invertebrate life.
"Just try and figure out what your critter wants," Grube urged them. "Does it like a high pH or a low pH? How will water temperature affect them? How much dissolved oxygen do they need?"
Nathan Bruggink, a student at Hayden High School, helped the mayflies test the pond water. Kaitlin Gallivan, Joe Kleiman and Bailey Moore, all students at Steamboat Springs Middle School, worked under Bruggink's guidance to record the acidity, temperature and oxygen content of the water.
Bruggink is back for his second year with the science school. He confesses that when teacher Brian Roddiger urged him to give it a try last year, he viewed it as a chance to get out of his own classes for a couple of days. Now, he has a different outlook entirely.
"I had so much fun last year, I told him there's no way I'm missing it this year," Bruggink said. "I'm looking to be a teacher after I graduate, and doing this kind of teaching."
Van de Carr loves to hear that kind of talk from the junior and senior leaders at the Science School.
"The Rocky Mountain Youth Corps hasn't been recognized as the educational resource that it should be," Van de Carr said. "It's not just building trails. It's all about education, whether it's life skills or academics or independent living."
To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org