Steamboat Springs Makenna Knez and her fifth-grade classmates returned Wednesday from a hike along the snow-packed banks of a frozen Yampa River to a warm ranch house where Makenna summed up her first excursion with Yampatika.
“The science books back at school didn’t tell us half of what we learned today,” Makenna said as she held a stack of papers on which she eventually chronicled the two-hour field trip where she learned how fast-flowing water can create electricity.
Makenna, who walked to the frozen river just east of Hayden to witness why it would not be a suitable source of hydroelectric energy during the Yampa Valley’s frigid winter months, and more than 20 other Hayden Valley Elementary School fifth-graders spent Wednesday afternoon at the 1,000-acre Carpenter Ranch studying renewable energy sources like wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric with two Yampatika naturalists. The large expanse of the ranch provided the group of students a vast open classroom where they could experiment and take in the natural beauty of a place where the sound of cars and trucks traveling along nearby U.S. Highway 40 are easily ignored.
Halfway through their field trip, a group of five students measured wind speeds with a modest turbine they crafted out of paper cups and a pencil while another group of children at the opposite side of the ranch learned that in the agriculture business, manure is much more than just a pile of waste. The cups on the turbine didn’t capture a lick of wind, but the students didn’t seem to mind.
“This is so exciting to see because when the kids are out of the classroom, they have a different focus and a different posture,” Carpenter Ranch facilities manager Betsy Blakeslee said as a group of students in front of her put the finishing touches on a solar oven that used foil to harness energy. “It’s also great to see students from Hayden come to a place like this because it’s right down the street.”
A new venue
This is the first school year Yampatika’s environmental literacy program, which started as a pilot in the Steamboat Springs School District last year, has been introduced in the Hayden School District. Yampatika naturalists plan to this year supply their curriculum to 10 classrooms in Hayden, and the program will in January also make its way to 12 classrooms in the South Routt School District with the help of a $12,000 grant Yampatika received last month from the U.S. Forest Service.
In all, the environment-focused nonprofit organization secured more than $23,000 in grants and donations that were necessary to expand the program to all three Routt County school districts.
Yampatika naturalist Karen Vail said she was thrilled the program is reaching more students.
“Today we were talking about sunlight, and it’s something that you hear about in science class,” Vail said. “But the textbooks don’t bring about the same excitement that making a solar oven does. Whenever kids are given the ability to work in a natural environment outside and really get a hands-on experience, you see how much more engaged they become.”
She also said students’ eyes often “glaze over” when she first starts talking about biomass, but their demeanor changes when she leads them around the ranch to point out how manure and leftover crops keep a ranch running. It also helped that two large horses appeared from behind a barn to greet the students.
A valuable resource
Yampatika Executive Director Sonja Macys said the expansion of the nonprofit’s environmental literacy program was a longstanding goal that now has become an important milestone for the group.
“It has always been our goal to make this program universally available,” she said. “The outlying districts don’t have as much of an opportunity to participate in programs like this because of funding restrictions. We were obviously thrilled we could afford to bring it to them.”
She said Yampatika’s next major project will be to evaluate how the program is impacting the school districts, and to expand it to more classrooms.
“The challenge will be to make sure we have the funding and the momentum to keep the quality of our programming up,” she said, adding that the programs are operating on shoestring budgets.
Returning from his hike around Carpenter Ranch on Wednesday, Hayden fifth-grader Justin Fry took off his jacket, took out a pen, and offered his own evaluation of the program.
“I think we accomplished something today,” he said as he started drafting a presentation he and his classmates would give Thursday about their Yampatika experience. “It was fun learning about all of the different types of energy.”
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com