Rocky Mountain Youth Corps puts on Yampa Valley Science School for Routt County sixth-graders.
Steamboat Springs Editor's note: The story was updated to add organizations that also contributed scholarship funds.
Steamboat Springs Middle School sixth-grader Mac Moody pulled his blindfold over his eyes and took a couple hesitant steps forward into the grassy patch before dropping to all fours. Acting as a blind bear for this Yampa Valley Science School activity, Mac had to try to collect colored cards representing food and resources scattered across the grass at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp without the aid of sight all the other sixth-grader bears enjoyed.
When all the cards were collected and the students sat, feet hanging off a porch, a staff member asked aloud to the group, “What happened to our blind bear? How many did you get?”
“Zero!” was Mac’s immediate response.
The lesson that unlucky bears will have trouble making it through winter was part of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps' annual science program catering to Routt County sixth-grade students. The students spend a week at Perry-Mansfield immersed in a program that is tailored to enhance and, in some ways, replace science curriculum in area schools. Students get hands-on lessons, see real-world observation of textbook examples and learn the tradeoffs inherent in the management of watersheds and even the ecosystem of bears.
If we have 520 pounds of food in our ecosystem and each bear needs 80 pounds, a staff member said, what’s the carrying capacity of our ecosystem?
“I worked it out. Can I say the answer?” Mac asked. “Six bears.”
Thanks, in part, to $2,500 from the Gloria Gossard Special Grants program, Yampa Valley Science School was able to revamp its curriculum this year, said Mark Wertheimer, associate director of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.
This year, the camp is broken into three topics referred to as spheres: biosphere, atmosphere/geosphere and hydrosphere. The camp runs three weeks with a new set of sixth-graders going through the spheres each week. The curriculum is updated to stay current with what’s being taught in Routt County schools, Wertheimer said, and teachers take part in the camp with their students to further integrate the lessons with the classroom.
“As silly as some of this may seem, there is a lot of research that shows this stuff sticks with them.” Wertheimer said while watching the student bears growl and crawl across the grass.
But it’s not all silly. A highlight for students was observing life at a basic level through research-grade microscopes as part of the hydrosphere lesson. The microscopes were a donation from Jerry Johnson that are shared with South Routt schools, Wertheimer said.
Logan McAtee said the hydrosphere was his favorite lesson of the week. “I’ve learned stuff I never knew before,” he said, noting that it was better than sitting the the classroom “by far” — a sentiment echoed by Isabelle Boniface and Reilly Mewborn.
Viewing mayflies and other organisms in pond water also was a favorite part of the week for Isabelle and Reilly. But with three nights spent in the Perry-Mansfield cabins, science school also is part summer camp, complete with cabin time, campfires and plenty of skits and songs.
Reilly said she’ll remember how Yeti, a high school volunteer, asked Pebble to homecoming (complete with flowers) during campfire time. Staff and volunteers go by camp names until the end of the week.
Isabelle said she, too, will remember the campfires, along with soccer played in the evenings and skits worked on with her cabin mates.
A lot of fundraising and partnerships go into making this experience happen for Routt County sixth-graders, Wertheimer said. Rocky Mountain Youth Corps gets funding for science school from the Craig-Scheckman Family Foundation, its annual Moonshine Ski & Dine fundraiser, the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board and program tuition, which the organization works to keep as inexpensive as possible. Through grants and partnerships, the organization is able to drop the per student cost from the $265 it would take to support the camp to the $125 it asks families and schools to contribute.
This year, a partnership with Alpine Bank, Bank of the West, Vectra Bank Colorado and Yampa Valley Bank has led to about 13 full scholarships. The Kiwanis Club of Steamboat Springs, Steamboat Lions Club, Ski Town USA Rotary Club and Hayden Lions Club also contributed scholarships funds. The program has fielded 27 requests for full or partial scholarships, and none of those will be turned away.
“We’ll continue to rally local support,” Wertheimer said. “Ultimately, every child should be able to come to science school.”