The Boy Scouts of America is teaming up with West Virginia University to tackle an ambitious goal: getting all sixth-graders in West Virginia learning outside. A pilot program took place this fall at the scouts’ Summit Bechtel Reserve high-adventure property.
Reclaiming The Classroom In The Natural World
“I have straight A’s and my favorite subject is science and that’s why I signed up,” said Langston Lilly, a sixth-grader who attends Shady Spring Middle School.
Langston was standing in a hardhat in front of a climbing wall built in the middle of a 10,000-acre reclaimed strip mine in southern West Virginia.
“So far, it’s been really fun,” she said, describing some of the team-building strategy games she played with her classmates.
Langston participated in an expanded pilot of an outdoor education program West Virginia University is shaping called Science Adventure School. She and her peers camped on cots inside large tents for several nights at the Summit Bechtel Reserve.
For many students, even though they live in rural communities, sleeping outside, spending time in a stream, or hiking is a novelty and a total break from reality. Sixthgrader Dax Simpson, from Independence Middle School in Raleigh County, said he’s never walked so much in his life.
“I feel better about myself now than I ever have before,” he said.
Walking sounds simple, and easy -- something we can all do in our own backyards, but leading educators in the field say taking a week in an outdoor setting like this can be life-changing for children.
Director of the Science Adventure School, Ali Jeney, explained that the fall pilot program hosted 500 students and 40 teachers from middle schools in Nicolas, Raleigh and Fayette counties. Schools provided transportation to and from the site, but students attend for free and any supplies they didn’t have were provided. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and WVU raised $500,000 from private donors to pull it off.
According to Jeney, the purpose of the project is to bring outdoor learning experiences to children across West Virginia. They eventually want to offer the program to most -- if not all -- sixth-grade students in the state.
Jeney explained, the school was built on the back of established science. Researchers even came to assess specific educational needs in the tri-county region. Organizers like Jeney then built a program incorporating proven and studied curriculums -- all designed to address those needs.
“The last thing I want to do is make it seem like this is a backward or sorry area because it’s not,” Jeney explained. “The reality is, these students and teachers are incredible. They do what they need to do with limited resources. But the research showed there are some socio-economic challenges here that really challenge students’ abilities to focus on school and be successful all the way through high school graduation.”
Jeney believes her program is already making a difference.
Earth, Sport And Soul-Changing
Science Adventure School incorporates a lot of earth science and sports science lessons, since they’re enveloped in both at the Summit Bechtel Reserve. The idea is to make science fun, engaging, and accessible.
But the program is designed to be more than just fun. Kids work together to establish team values, and are encouraged to talk about issues that matter to them. They learn things like cooperation and critical thinking -- skills that are harder to teach with typical classroom constraints. But educational leaders say these skills are critical for society to progress, and for our children to thrive.
When asked if she believed a four-day science and adventure experience outdoors could really have a lasting impact on the lives of students in West Virginia, Jeney said her experiences in the pilot programs convinced her.
“I might have not believed if before I saw it with my own eyes. I might have not believed it before I heard it from the mouths of people who know these kids intimately,” she said. “Hearing teachers talk about what it looked like to go back to school after Science Adventure School -- that is the moment I knew without a doubt that this program is making long-term impacts in ways we may never be able to measure.”
Jeney isn’t alone in her conviction. One teacher from Beckley-Stratton Middle School, Angela Houck, is also convinced the program is providing something special for her and her students. She was involved in the initial pilot program last year, when 30 of her students got to come to the reserve. When WVU researchers interviewed Houck about her experience, she said she’d do anything to come back.
“Our kids need this. The future needs this,” Houck said. “Eighteen years of teaching, I’ve never seen anything come close to touching this -- I’m amazed. And it’s going to be really hard for me to go back to my classroom. And I just hope and pray that other kids on our great state get this opportunity.”
Teachers like Houck say the program enables them to get to know their students on a more human level. She says outside the confines of four walls and 40-minute-classes, she can build more meaningful relationships, reach kids more easily, and teaching is a lot more fun.