The science of fall

Sixth-graders, high schoolers bond in the outdoors

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Like all seasons, autumn has characteristics that make it unmistakable.

Temperatures begin their slow decline as winter rapidly approaches, leaves change from green to gold to red and critters begin to fatten up for the snowy months ahead.

And for the past five years, the Yampa Valley Science School also has been a fall staple.

Since its inception in 2000, the Yampa Valley Science School has played host to Routt County sixth-graders for three weeks at the beginning of each academic year. With the scenic campus of the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp as its classroom, the school joins middle school students with high school junior leaders, college volunteers and AmeriCorps mentors for an intensive and fun science-based learning experience.

Hayden students occupied the unheated cabins of Perry-Mansfield for the first week of the science school, followed the next two weeks by Steamboat Springs Middle School students. The South Routt School District declined to participate this year, as did area private schools. The per-student cost for the program is $125.

Spending three nights away from home and with their peers is an unforgettable experience for many of the participants, as are the daylight hours spent wandering through meadows and forests and along creeks and ponds as they learn about the diverse ecosystems and processes that shape the Yampa Valley.

Each weeklong program concludes with a day for service projects; this year students from Hayden and Steamboat performed weed eradication work at Carpenter Ranch and at Perry-Mansfield.

Students are expected to complete a detailed journal of lessons and reflections, a task that area teachers say incorporates reading, writing and other skills with the science education upon which the program is founded.

"It's more holistic than just science education," said Avrom Feinberg, program director for Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, which created the program. "The kids have duties and responsibilities and must function as a community. And they have fun, too."

The science school provides more than just a special learning opportunity for sixth-graders, Feinberg said. The junior leaders who volunteer from Hayden and Steamboat high schools lead lessons and are placed in positions of significant responsibility.

This year, the science school also provided a chance for students in Steamboat Springs High School's new Students Engaged in Active Learning program, or SEAL, to get out of the classroom and into a new and exciting setting. It's a partnership SEAL teacher Chad Bowdre hopes will continue and expand in future years.

Yampa Valley Science School program manager and AmeriCorps school-based mentor Alia Albertowicz said she was impressed with the dedication of the junior leaders.

"Something I've really noticed about the program this year is the junior leaders," she said. "The program isn't just about the sixth-graders. It's also about these (high school) kids becoming leaders.

"It's just been so great to work with them."

In addition to bringing SEAL students to the program, the Yampa Valley Science School also revised its curriculum this fall. Intended to be more of a "stretch" for students, this year's four units focused on conifers, aspens, riparian areas and meadows. The units used by the school in the past were water, plants, animals and soil. All Yampa Valley Science School curriculum is aligned with state content standards.

Steamboat Springs Middle School teacher Heidi Chapman is a big fan of the science school. Chapman said the experience is "an incredible" team-building exercise because it helps bring together the school's sixth-graders, who are entering middle school from two different elementary schools. She also emphasized the program's ability to connect the younger students with high school, college and AmeriCorps leaders and its teaching of virtues such as respect and responsibility.

"It's learning how to work as a community," Chapman said.

Funding for the science school is generated through per-pupil tuition costs and donations from various community members, businesses and organizations.

But Feinberg said the program annually struggles to cover its expenses.

"We're looking for long-term support of our programs," he said. "User fees only cover so much of the program."

A slide-show celebration of this year's Yampa Valley Science School program is at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Olympian Hall. The event will feature root beer floats. For more information, call Feinberg at 879-2135.

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