Making science fun: Kids learn by getting out of classroom

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PORTOLA Calif. (KOLO) - Turn a group of kids loose in a mountain meadow with a creek and a pond, they will have fun. And that's just what's happening at the Grizzly Creek Ranch near Portola.

At the moment, amid squeals of excitement and laughter, a group of fifth and sixth graders from Donner Springs Elementary School in Reno is searching for invertebrates--bugs-- and that search has a purpose--determining biodiversity in this micro environment.

Armed with nets, turning over rocks, the search goes on. Kids getting their hands dirty, following their natural curiosity. What's not to like?

They are having a lot of fun, but whether they realize it or not they're also learning.

It's actually a school day and and this is a class assignment, though their regular classroom is an hour away back in southeast Reno.

They are determining the health of his alpine pond by finding its inhabitants. You could teach much of this in the classroom. It's likely this is leaving a more lasting lesson.

"Sometimes you don't learn by just reading a book," says sixth grader Zach Akers..."You learn by doing it."

"They're getting their hands wet in the pond looking for macro invertebrates determining if the pond is healthy actually at the pond doing real citizen science," says Program Director Megan Hollenbeck.

Elsewhere on this sprawling campus, others are learning teamwork and engineering building a sturdy geodesic dome out of flimsy rods.

"I liked building the geodome," says fifth grader Natlalia Mendoza."It was cool because we learned what it was."

Fifth grader Lola Elliott learned a basic fact of structural strength.

"Like if you pushed on a triangle it wouldn't break, but if you pushed on a square it would like tip over."

Another group is learning to observe the elements of the environment around them in the course of a hike.

As they wait their turn others play a simple game called "Kinetic".It teaches the difference between kinetic and potential energy.

The camp is run by Sierra Nevada Journeys (a KOLOCares Pillar Partner), created a decade ago, by educators and scientists who saw gaps in science education and the opportunity to turn kids on at an earlier age.

They add their expertise to local classrooms, but we suspect the experience here is what will have the greatest impact.

"We teach them how to observe and then they go out there and they are inquisitive and are able to determine for themselves what they want to learn for themselves," says Hollenbeck.

The students have spent a couple of days up here, bunking in cabins, eating together and having fun. For some it's a first time experience in the wild.

"And they come up here and the first thing is 'Where's the snow? Are we going to climb that mountain? I haven't seen a deer yet. This is awesome."

There's a small herd of deer on site, who seem to pay little notice to the students.

The kids will leave many tell us sad to go, glad for the experience and who knows, with a life long drive to know more.

Hollenbeck and the rest of the staff could be introducing future scientists to the natural world?

"I really hope so. Future scientists and future caregivers to the planet, for sure."