Summertime discovery

Kids’ camps aim to teach school-aged kids about nature

Docent and Chico State student Elisabeth Johnson gives some attentive kids an earful about the museum’s replica of a short-faced bear skeleton during the grand opening in February.

Docent and Chico State student Elisabeth Johnson gives some attentive kids an earful about the museum’s replica of a short-faced bear skeleton during the grand opening in February.


What is science?

“Science is the language of the universe—without it, we are lost,” explained Chico State math professor LaDawn Haws as she stood amid a room full of kid-friendly experiments and toys in the Gateway Science Museum.

“We call it science, but really it’s just a description of nature,” she said during a recent interview.

Chico State’s new Gateway Science Museum, a natural-history museum that focuses on Northern California habitats and landscapes, has been working to teach that language to children since January, when it opened its doors to host fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade field trips. Since then, hundreds of school kids have begun to learn about the living and non-living things that exist right in Northern California.

Additionally, throughout the past six months, employees and volunteers have been preparing to open the museum’s doors this summer for an even bigger project: Gateway Discovery Camps.

Monday (June 14) marks the start of the first of four sessions planned throughout June and July. As of publication, plenty of space was left in the camps, likely due to the challenge of getting the word out about a new camp in a community where multiple summer programs have been going strong for years, said Jeanne Greene, a local scientist who helped organize the camps.

Greene also noted other factors that may be deterring enrollment, such as the cost ($150 per weeklong camp) and limiting the camps’ curricula to kids entering the fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Or, numbers may be low simply due to the tendency of Chicoans to sign up for things at the last minute.

No matter the reasons, organizers know that the first few camps—much like the first few field trips—are likely to be full of both triumphs and hiccups, she said.

“We’re still working out the bugs,” said an optimistic Greene. “With the intention being, once we get through the fourth to sixth grades, we can expand it to other grades in the future.”

Hooker Oak Elementary School students feel the texture of a cork tree outside the museum during a field trip.


Julie Monet, a science-education professor at Chico State, has compiled two different sets of camp curricula under a “guided-discovery” philosophy that encourages children to touch, feel and experience things for themselves under the supervision of Chico State student counselors.

The two camps—one habitat-themed, the other focusing on riparian zones—are modeled similarly to the museum’s popular Friday field trips (hands-on nature walks, recording data in field books and analyzing results in a classroom-like setting during the academic school year), but are tweaked to encourage a stronger understanding of each topic through intensive weeklong experiments, art projects and guest lectures, Greene said.

The “Birds, Bugs and Habitats” sessions (June 14-17 and July 12-15), will aim to give campers an understanding of how living and non-living factors affect the habitats of birds and bugs in Northern California.

By exploring the landscaping surrounding the museum—which was oriented in a north-to-south direction and designed to depict our surrounding regions stretching from the mountains to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta—and listening to an overview by a member of the Audubon Society, campers will learn to identify different types of birds. They will also use bird feeders to conduct a weeklong experiment to determine high, medium and low bird-traffic areas around the museum.

“Part of it is to get them to think about what would cause more birds to go here, rather than there,” Greene said.

Campers who attend the habitat-themed sessions will also spend the week finding as many types of bugs as they can by collecting leaf litter in a device called a Berlese funnel. They’ll even conduct a funky experiment with a potato that attracts different kinds of critters before closely inspecting the specimens under a microscope.

During the “Creekside Discovery” sessions (June 21-24 and July 19-22), campers will explore the riparian zone along Big Chico Creek near the Bidwell Mansion. With the help of guest lecturers Jennifer Jewell—host of a local garden-focused radio program—and Chico State biology professor Ray Barnett, teams of campers will conduct soil investigations, identify trees and analyze how water flow and runoff affect erosion on the creek bank. Campers will also experience a “sensory discovery walk” in which they will be blindfolded and encouraged to smell, hear and feel different parts of a habitat.

Separate from their creek investigations, kids who attend the riparian-themed sessions will use “water meters”—pieces of heavy-duty paper with a sliding ribbon—to keep track of how much water they use each day throughout the week.

At the end of each session, campers will compile their data in groups on creative paper displays called “foldables.” Campers will also be able to take home lots of “goodies,” Greene said, such as their field notebooks and backpacks, craft projects and other materials that will help them continue the exploration process in their own back yards.

For now, Greene said the camps’ limited focus on the fourth, fifth and sixth grades is largely due to the fact that Monet has already spent hundreds of hours compiling and perfecting curricula for the Friday field trips. She also noted that, while the age range may seem limited, getting kids excited about science becomes increasingly important (and difficult) as they near junior high school.

“Because if you don’t get them having fun with science [at that age], it’s really hard to get them interested later.”