Cheyenne Carey Junior High students take education to nature's classroom

CHEYENNE – The sun was shining, but the air was cold enough to see breath when four yellow buses first appeared on the horizon at the Thomas O. Kraner Science Center on Friday.

The calming stillness at the Laramie County School District 1-owned educational site off Happy Jack Road west of Cheyenne was about to be shattered by the chattering of around 140 Carey Junior High eighth-graders. 

Some of the young students wore nothing more than shorts and T-shirts. In stark contrast, one student wore camouflage from head to toe, complete with leaves dangling from his hat. But no matter how they dressed, the students of Team Impact were ready to be out of school Friday for a field trip.

The trip’s coordinators brought Team Impact – comprised of one-third of Carey’s eighth-grade class – to the Wyoming wilderness to experience four activities where they had the chance to integrate math, science, social studies and group-building skills, said Tom Farrell, Carey Junior High science teacher and one of the outing’s coordinators.

“You see the initial impact in the sense of awe some of the kids have,” Farrell said the evening before the trip. “Some of the kids haven’t had a chance to experience the outdoors. So for some, this will be their first experience hiking in the woods, having a chance to go through and see some wildlife and nature, and really get some good information and educational experiences in the outdoors.” 

The students rotated between a hike, an activity where they learned about trees, a geocaching activity where they used Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to search for items, as well as a teambuilding exercise with guests from Cheyenne’s Youth Alternatives.

Farrell said it’s all about experiencing the world around them. The hope, he said, is for the students to apply what they learn in the classroom to the field trip and, conversely, take what they learn on the field trip back to the classroom.

“I think it’s important for kids to get out in the dirt and experience the natural world around them,” Farrell said. “They go out and process what’s around them without a lot of non-natural stimulus.”

One of the requirements for the students participating was not so easy for young people or adults these days: no electronics were allowed. It’s something Farrell knows can be challenging in the modern era.

“Unplugging and just experiencing what’s around them is tough,” he said. “They’re so used to immediate interaction with the smartphone, TV, whatever. There’s such an onslaught of information anymore, and I think it’s important for kids and adults to have a chance to step back and look at a simpler way of life.”

While walking back to the Science Center from the geocaching activity, Carey eighth-grader Nedra McIlwaine said she had conflicting feelings about unplugging from the digital world for the day.

“It’s semi-relieving, but it’s semi-not,” she said. “You don’t have to stress about people you’re not even with, but at the same time you want to be connected. I try not to get obsessed with it. It’s not healthy.”

Other children from McIlwaine’s group seemed to be getting along well enough, as they whooped loudly in unison and lightly ran through the tall grass. It’s not as though McIlwaine was going through smartphone withdrawals, either. She said she goes hiking with her brother and enjoys those times off the grid because it helps her fully take in her experiences without a glowing screen of distractions.

“I just like to spend time with him when not as many people are around,” she said.

While the children were living the experience unplugged, they showed examples of applying their education to the activities.

Paul Sandler, Laramie County Conservation District education specialist, led an activity about tree ecology and growth.

“We just covered all the different requirements trees need to grow and what might limit growth, such as sun, soil and water,” he said. “We’re also covering overcrowding and how we can manage our forest to be more sustainable for us in the future.”

While Sandler spoke, the kids were looking at tree sections, counting rings and measuring the radius to determine how much the trees grew in their lifetime.

In a bit of math review, Sandy Lever, Carey Junior High associate principal, asked the students the difference between diameter and radius. After some “I don’t know” replies flew out, Tanner Zimmerman broke the uncertainty.

“Diameter is all the way across, then radius is halfway,” he replied.

Students on the hike also demonstrated how they could take their experiences back to the classroom. When they reached a slanted rocky portion of ground that was their destination, the students were instructed to find a spot to relax and just observe using their senses. These sensations, they were told, would be taken back to their English classes for use in poems.

“A lot of kids are creative on their own, but some struggle,” said English teacher Jenny Allen. “If they’re writing a poem and they’ve actually experienced nature, where they can see things and hear and smell things, they can feel things, they can write about that.”

After about 10 minutes, Allen and social studies teacher Johnna Lissman beckoned them back to ask about what sensations the students observed. Some said they saw leaves changing; another saw bugs crawling between rocks; many said they’d heard running water nearby.

Eighth-grader Matt Harms said he felt cacti – for better or worse.

“It poked me in my finger, like, three times,” he said. “But it was really cool because I never held a cactus before.”

In explaining the geocaching exercise, Laramie County School District 1 Science Coordinator Julie Calkins said just because the GPS pointed to a destination with a straight line doesn’t mean it’s the best path.     

“Just because it’s pointing straight up the mountain doesn’t mean you need to go straight up the mountain,” she said. “There are little clues in nature. If you find a dry ravine, walk beside it, because that’s an easy way to go – water always goes the easiest route.”

The teambuilding exercise called for several students to try to walk together with a group of wood blocks connected by rope. If they weren’t able to work together, they couldn’t move the blocks.

Youth Alternatives counselor Eric Patterson said it demonstrated “maybe the No. 1 rule in life, in general.”

“If you’re doing something one way and you’re not getting the results you want, and you just keep doing it the same way, you’re going to keep getting the same results,” he said. “If something isn’t working, you have to tweak it. Maybe you don’t completely change the strategy, but you have to at least change it slightly so it will work.”

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