Learning in nature's classroom

Study emphasizes environment, conservation

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— Fishing for Stone or May flies in the Yampa River may seem more like a sport than a study, but educators in the Yampa Valley are encouraging their students to learn about the habitats that surround them in order to appreciate where they live.

Funded by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Texaco Foundation and Colorado State Parks, teachers from northwest Colorado will gather Aug. 1-2 at the state park headquarters at the Yampa River State Park to learn different hands-on wildlife and aquatic activities for their students.

"Workshops take developing knowledge of content standards and skills and incorporate them into curriculum," said Elaine Sturges, early childhood and conservation education specialist.

Sturges is facilitating this two-day workshop with Gail Petch, a third grade teacher in Craig, and Ed Hayne, biology teacher at Soroco High School.

The Yampa River Project Wild and Aquatic Wild workshop is a literacy-based, hands-on wildlife education workshop correlated with the Colorado content standards for elementary educators.

Sturges said the workshop isn't limited to teachers, however it is appropriate for those working with children.

"This is a conservation, educational program with a focus on wildlife. There's a lot of outside activities that teachers can do with their kids," Sturges said.

Sturges said the theme of the first day is wildlife.

Teachers will learn certain activities and take them back to the classroom in the fall to teach their students.

Petch will co-facilitate with Sturges on the first day.

"One activity is 'Oh, Deer,'" Sturges said. "We'll teach them about habitat components like food, water and shelter ... the deer population and fluctuations in the deer habitat."

The second day deals with aquatic organisms when Hayne will co-facilitate with Sturges.

"Ed has the waders, I've got some nets and we'll collect aquatic organisms," Sturges said. "Stone and May flies (represent) a healthy river. I anticipate we'll find insects that provide a healthy habitat for fish."

In each of the activities, children learn basic components within the content standards set by the state.

"We're addressing those content standards (reading, writing, science and math) by helping kids increase their skills in the content standards," Sturges said.

Petch said she recently returned from Dillon where educators gathered to align the Project Wild activities with state standards.

They also did the same for the other statewide place-based education programs, Project Learning Tree and Project Wet.

"It was hard. We were picky about it there's maybe three to four standards for each activity. Years ago they tried to align the activities with all the standards. Project Wild can't be everything," Petch said.

The program was developed in the 1980s by teachers and wildlife educators from all over the country.Petch said she's been involved with Project Wild for 12 years and hopes more teachers understand that "we're not a bunch of anti-hunters."

"The message we're trying to send is we're trying to get a balance," Petch said. "We want to get kids out of the classroom, get their face out of a book. We can teach reading and writing with Project Wild. (Nature) is what they talk about and what they read about."

Petch said she heard a woman at the Dillon conference say, "Reading isn't a subject, it's a skill" and had hope that the balance could actually work.

Getting students out of their seats and excited about learning with hands-on activities is what gets children to really learn a subject, Petch said.

"I think it gives them roots as to where they are and who lives here. It helps them identify with their whole environment," Sturges said of place-based education.

Sturges said the program struggled with funding for a long time, but thanks to Texaco Foundation, educators are able to learn hands-on activities for their students and help teachers get college credit.

Sturges said this is the first year the Texaco Foundation has partly funded the program with the generous gift of $30,000 each year for three years.

Texaco sponsors environmental programs wherever the oil company has employees.

To reach Kelly Silva, call 871-4204

or email ksilva@steamboatpilot.com

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