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Educational Services Division

Learning Comes Alive in the Redwoods

Closing Circle
Closing Circle

In the southern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains, nestled beneath the towering redwoods, is a wonderful nature and science experience waiting for many of the 5th and 6th graders of Santa Cruz County Schools. At the Santa Cruz County Outdoor Science School, these students experience a four- or five-day residential, hands-on science program in the rich coastal redwood forest ecosystem that surrounds our coastal community. Whether it’s kissing banana slugs, making friends with a newt, traversing a character-building ROPES course, roasting marshmallows and singing songs around the campfire, or picking out your nature name, the days spent at this camp will be a time long remembered by each participant.

Heather MacDougall (nature name: Dragonfly), the director of the program, believes that many young children suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder”. Many of the students who pass through this camp are often leaving their neighborhoods for the very first time. For many of these kids, their week at the school becomes a life changing experience.

During field class, students study the forest, meadows, and streams with a qualified naturalist. Through the use of science inquiry, games, and other activities, naturalists teach ecological concepts. Children see the interrelationships between plants and animals and learn about the effect they, as people, have on the environment. A richer understanding of their natural surroundings helps prepare them for the mature decisions they will make as adults.

Recently, the Outdoor Science School was host to two local elementary schools, Brook Knoll Elementary School and Calabasas Elementary School.  This was not just a lesson in science, but when children of different backgrounds come together in this bucolic setting, Outdoor Science School becomes a social experience that builds character and promotes diversity.

Kids in their Shelter
Kids in Their Shelter

Stacy Sgro (nature name: Pinecone), a 5th grade teacher from Calabasas Elementary School, was making her second camp trip with her students.

Once they get to the camp, life changes for everyone. Ms. Sgro spoke of how a teacher’s relationship with students changes at camp because it provides a different way of interacting with each other. Teachers get to see students challenge themselves in ways they don’t often get to do. They see that moment of awe when learning comes to life which just can’t be matched in the classroom. To these children, it is not all about the science but also how to become stewards of the land, learning team building, being away from home for the first time, having an opportunity to socialize with different cultures. They learn that there is something they can accomplish with their hard work, gain an opportunity to think more globally and they start connecting learning to the real world.

There is no question that it is worth the effort to bring these kids to this wonderful camp. After they come back to school from camp, they are all still excited. They get to share their experiences with others and grow in their confidence to handle other new situations. Many feel like they are becoming part of a larger community outside the classroom,  the school and their own community. Ms. Sgro spoke of one student with a disability who was able to succeed in the ROPES course. The student’s sense of pride and accomplishment was like a magic potion. Students with disabilities get a chance to “be kids” and not surrounded by daily issues. Often times these are some of the most memorable event in their lives. Some of her students never have been to the ocean or to the mountains. Their daily lives do not allow for it. The hope is that they will go home and introduce their family and community to new surroundings.

Ann Codd (nature name: Lady Bug) is a 5th grade teacher at Brook Knoll Elementary School.  She has been teaching there for 13 years and each year she has made the trip to the Outdoor Science School with her students. Prior to her tenure at Brook Knoll, Ms. Codd had attended other science camps with other schools and she noted that none of them holds a candle to the Santa Cruz County Outdoor Science School.  Actually having electricity and indoor bathrooms was enough to set our school apart from the rest.

Ropes Course
Ropes Course

This year Brook Knoll brought 3 ½ classes.  Ms. Codd says that the teachers feel it is important that they all attend to support their students during this new experience. Being at camp gives teachers and students an opportunity to get to know each other in a new way. As the teachers watch their kids make new friends, get homesick or help those having trouble socializing in this environment, Ms. Codd says it adds another dimension to the student-teacher relationship. She sees classmates bonding tighter and the teachers bond closer with each student. Ms. Codd knows that her class returns to the classroom more coalesced, more comfortable with teachers other than their own, and more capable of handling new and unknown situations.

Both she and Ms. Sgro see this experience as half social and half science. An outdoor science camp seems to provide the optimum learning environment. Having an experiential hands-on based learning curriculum ignites a fire. Ms. Codd sees a few students each year who have experiences at Outdoor Science School that makes learning finally come alive. They are able to carry that new awareness back into the classroom. The students’ awareness that they were ok being away from home is another growth aspect. Some students make great strides in becoming more independent.

For more information on the Santa Cruz County Outdoor Science School, please contact Heather McDougall at (831) 466-5715.

Santa Cruz County Office of Education  |  400 Encinal Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060  |  831.466.5600  |  Fax: 831.466.5607
The Santa Cruz County Office of Education provides quality educational programs and services to a diverse community.