Kendallvue Elementary student Faith Wilkerson picked up a mountain lion skin, staring with wide eyes and paying particular attention to the remnant’s slack jaw and curiously smooth coat.
“Whoa. This is so soft,” the sixth-grader said at the start of her second day at the Jeffco School District’s Windy Peak Outdoor Lab School. “The other ones I felt weren’t as soft.”
Preceding the lion were a black bear and an elk, the remains of which were tucked haphazardly into large plastic tubs and accompanied by other fascinating remnants — a skull, an antler, hooves and molds of footprints.
In a room filled with life-size dioramas of preserved beasts interacting in cartoon-like food-chain sequences — a fox pursuing a small rodent, and an eagle in turn descending upon the fox — the small group of students furiously digging through boxes of animal parts on Aug. 30 did not seem out of place.
By Sept. 2, the 59 sixth-graders were on a bus home, exhausted from a week of archery, nature walks and astronomy but giddy with stories to share with their families.
It was an educational week that months ago seemed unlikely. Facing daunting reductions in state funding, the Jeffco school board slashed $40 million from the district’s budget, cutting, among other things, hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for the outdoor lab program.
But by May parents and community members had helped raise $625,000 for the Outdoor Lab Foundation, exceeding its goal by $175,000. The school district agreed to contribute a matching grant of $450,000 toward the $900,000 annual operating cost for the Mount Evans and Windy Peak locations.
Nature is the classroom
Contributing to the foundation was an easy decision for many parents, some of whom attended the rite-of-passage program as children.
“You spend a week out here with your classmates,” Kristine Turner, the only full-time teacher at Windy Peak, a remote campus 8 miles southeast of Bailey, said as she prepared to lead a group of students on a two-hour forestry hike. “You go back from outdoor lab with this common experience that you can always go back to.”
Not only does the week serve as a team-building experience for kids at a transitional age, it also inspires hands-on learners to assume leadership roles and openly demonstrate their knowledge, she said.
“You get kids out here, and they just shine,” Turner said.
Students earn science credit during the week, completing workbooks and showing their comprehension of five objectives related to environmental stewardship, positive attitudes, relationships, scientific processes and self-reliance.
A short distance into the hike, Turner quizzes the students on Windy Peak’s history. The day before, interns and high school students adorned Old West garb and re-enacted important events in the 205-acre site’s past — a time-honored ceremony to welcome the sixth-graders at the beginning of every week.
Turner points to a patch of headstones adjacent to the trail.
“There’s a whole family buried there. The kids all died from sickness,” student Noah Leonhardt said. “It’s sad.”
Proceeding to a patch of aspens and evergreens, Turner instructs the students to take out their workbooks, pick a tree, name it and thoroughly describe the plant. The exercise seems aligned more with English than science, and the students work to inscribe the books with the most vivid possible descriptions.
“Do you know the color of a marshmallow, right after it’s been toasted?” Turner asked, pointing to a dead tree and insisting that its shade is much more than just “tan.”
“I want you guys to use some really colorful vocabulary when you describe your tree,” she said.
Noah walks over to a massive spruce, which he names “Aragon.”
To help him estimate the tree’s height, Turner instructs him to use her 5-foot frame as a reference point. The tree, he said, was approximately “10 Turners tall.”
The exercise is a marked contrast from the same lesson in an indoor classroom. Elated, students pull out cameras and photograph their trees.
A physics lesson
“For them, they get to take it home and share it with their family,” intern Kassie Gunn said of the outdoor lab experience, as she watched her group of students attempt to pierce hay-filled targets with arrows. “Most of the kids have never even gotten to do this before.”
Whether the young students were fully aware of the physics lesson, which explored concepts of kinetic and potential energy, seemed less consequential to them than the excitement of firing arrows — even if only one hit the target.
“This is the combination of everything I love — empowering people and (being in) the out of doors,” said Windy Peak principal Robb Gneiser, 42, a relentlessly upbeat former assistant principal at Deer Creek Middle School who started his career as a wildlife biologist in Alaska. “A lot of people tell me I have a dream job, and it is.”
The impact the program has on the sixth-graders is obvious, he said. This year at the two lab schools, hundreds of district sixth-graders will enjoy nature, experience new concepts and take a break from the traditional classroom for a week of hands-on learning. Students take in core concepts ranging from geology to astronomy, and each visiting school chooses a handful of special-interest activities, such as photography or wildlife-viewing hikes.
But beyond that, Gneiser, stresses the high school leader program, which is an underappreciated aspect of the outdoor lab, he said. For many of the high school students, the week is their first time assuming a teaching role.
“That empowers the high school leaders. … They’re learning to work with small kids,” Gneiser said. “It changes their career path. … (For) a lot of people who come up here, it changes their lives.”
By the numbers, annually
• Sixth-graders who attend Outdoor Labs: 7,000
• High school leaders: 800
• Schools participating: 90 elementary schools, two middle schools and 18 high schools throughout the district
• Year Outdoor Lab Schools were founded: 1957
• First year of classes at Windy Peak: 1976
For information about fund-raising, visit www.outdoorlabfoundation.org.