Steamboat Springs First-grader Hannah Widner had her high school study buddy, Kelly Nickols, accompany her during a field trip at the wetlands park near Stagecoach Reservoir Tuesday.
Nickols helped Widner spell the names of animals in the wetland habitat, look for bugs from the river and paint with watercolors.
"If we wouldn't have done this, I probably would have never met her," Nickols said.
Widner sat in Nickols' lap as
J. O'Brien, a Stagecoach Park office employee, explained the anatomy of a fish.
"I like her a lot," Widner said about her study buddy.
She said has met with her study buddy twice before once to get introduced and the other on a field trip to the fish hatchery.
All first-grade students and high school biology students are paired up for the program that studies local ecology issues. During the field trip to the wetland reserve, students from Cindy Gay's high school class and Celia Dunham's first-grade class were paired up for their exploration of the wetlands.
"It's a win-win for the first-graders and high school students," said Elaine Sturges, an early childhood and conservation education specialist.
She said the first-graders look up to their study buddies and the high schoolers can gain leadership skills and confidence.
Nickols said the high schoolers are mindful of their behavior when they are around their study buddies.
They also need to master their skills in science and biology to teach and explain it to their younger study buddies.
"We have to understand enough to simplify it for the kids," sophomore Mackenzie Frank said.
With the help of his students, Soroco High School biology teacher Ed Hayne designed the wetland park near Stagecoach Reservoir. He explained to students the process of building a park that lets people explore the wetlands while not harming the area's land or animals.
Gay, who wants to create a wetland park behind the high school, encouraged students to take notes and ask questions.
"How can you study life without being out in it?" Gay asked.
She said she thinks the creation of a wetland park will give students a valuable, real-life learning experience.
"Even to create a plan you have to know a lot of biology. It's way better than any text," she said.
Students collected insects from the river floor and identified them.
Tim Widmer of Steamboat Fishing Co. helped students identify insects.
He showed students man-made flies and how they imitate actual insects found in the river.
"Part of your success with fly fishing is how well you understand your environment," he said.
Students recorded the number of insects, fish and crawdads they captured. Sturges reminded students to learn from the animals and their habitats but to return them to their home.
Students discovered the connection between art and nature while painting watercolors with high school art teacher Rich Galusha.
"There's a lot behind nature. In many ways (art and nature) are inseparable," Gay said.
The students' exploration of the wetlands was only one component of the study buddy program.
The study buddies will take another field trip together later in the school year.
Sturges said students learn the difference between riparian and aquatic environments, about the wetlands and birds and insects.
She said most students will also be involved in a stewardship project that involves planting trees and shrubs at the Yampa River Botanic Park and creating a children's garden.
"High schoolers get the opportunity to be role models," Gay said. "It's not just one-way learning these first-graders are really watching the high schoolers."
In addition to field trips, study buddies perform in-class science activities.
Sturges said the program started four years ago with one first-grade class and one high school biology class. She said the program has grown to include all first-grade classes and two second-grade classes.
"Teachers see the value," Sturges said.