Steamboat Springs Yampatika naturalist Karen Vail instructed a group of second-graders about animal habitats from a 4-foot-deep hole in the snow Wednesday morning.
It was a simple exercise, but one that illustrated how Yampatika’s environmental literacy pilot program is educating local students. Yampatika created the program this year to enhance what students learn in school as required by the Colorado Model Content Standards, Executive Director Sonja Macys said.
She said it allows the nonprofit agency that provides educational opportunities to students and adults to infuse environmental literacy into the K-5 curriculum.
“While we’ve been going into the classroom for one shot, this takes it to the next level, enhancing the academic standards,” she said. “While it uses the outdoors as a classroom and tool for teaching, it’s not outdoor education. It really is about academic achievement and using the outdoors for context.”
The program has three sessions per class. During the first, a Yampatika naturalist introduces a topic, such as animal habitats, in the classroom. Then the students apply what they’ve learned in the field at Yampatika’s Legacy Ranch on U.S. Highway 40. And finally, the students participate in a related service-learning opportunity.
Vail, who worked with Susan Ogden’s second-grade class last week, said it’s possible for students to learn even in three short sessions.
“I think it’s all how you teach,” Vail said. “If you can really capture their attention, get something that sticks in their mind and is relevant to them, I think they can get it.”
That’s what appeared to take place Wednesday, as students joined Vail in the hole to see and touch the different layers of snow. She explained how active winter animals adapt in winter to survive in the subnivean zone between the ground and top of the snowpack.
Many of the students said they liked being able to learn outside of school.
“You get to have fun, and you don’t get in trouble while having fun and trying to learn,” 7-year-old Lauren Parks said.
Parent Chris Airoldi accompanied the class on the trip — her son Noel is in Ogden’s class — and said she thought it was great that the students had access to hands-on learning instead of just reading out of a book.
“I am a big fan of outdoor education because I think it’s hard for them to always sit still in a classroom and stay focused,” she said. “By seeing it, touching, feeling, they’re better able to understand concepts.”
Ogden said Yampatika has been a great resource for local students and said she loved that the agency is taking a more active role in creating a program that fits with the existing curriculum. Ogden said she’s looking forward to seeing how the program expands.
Because it’s a pilot program, it’s being offered in only one Steamboat Springs School District K-5 classroom in each grade. But Macys said Yampatika has applied for grant funding, including the Education Fund Board, to offer the program next year to every K-5 student in Routt County.
She added that the state is working to create an environmental literacy plan and is looking at Yampatika’s pilot program for evidence that it teaches students in a meaningful way. Macys seemed confident the program would be a success.
“I believe based on two decades of experience with this type of programming that we will see positive results,” she said.