The great outdoor classroom

New group brings nature back to science education

Local naturalist Jon Aull discusses ecology and insects with a group of students at Ophir Elementary School.

Local naturalist Jon Aull discusses ecology and insects with a group of students at Ophir Elementary School.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

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It was a sunny Friday morning at Ophir Elementary School in Oroville, a perfect day for students to be out in the grass, learning about biology and ecosystems and caring for the planet. And thanks to a whole lot of planning on the part of a relatively new educational group, that’s exactly what they were doing.

Students in kindergarten through second grade formed half a dozen groups spread out in the school’s expansive outdoor area. Each was assigned a station, manned by local educators from the Stream Team, Chico State, Butte Environmental Council and California State Parks, among other organizations. Their presentations included everything from the importance of recycling and keeping creeks clean to the wonders of ecology and native wildlife.

Laura Marciniak, resource teacher at Ophir Elementary, summed up her reaction with: “Wow. I could never get this done on my own.”

That’s where Outdoor Education for All fits in. Formed in 2013, OEFA is a partnership of 170 local educators—teachers, principals, professors, field guides—and organizations ranging from the Chico Creek Nature Center and Lake Oroville State Recreation Area to Earthbound Skills and FISHBIO.

“We all had a vision in common, of getting kids outside more,” said Nate Millard, supervisor of the First Year Experience Program at Chico State and a member of the OEFA steering committee. “And we realized that if we all get together, we will be way stronger.”

Turns out they were right. They approached individuals and organizations that fit their mission—to expose more local children, particularly those from low-income households, to outdoor education—and were met with enthusiasm. In the first two years, they were able to serve more than 2,000 local students at four schools, including charter schools.

“What I see [at the college level] is that many students have learned to hate school,” Millard said during a recent interview. “So if we can get them out with a bird expert, learning about birds, that could change their perspective of what science can do.”

In fact, many of OEFA’s partners already were working toward the same goal, only on their own. The Stream Team offers lessons in testing local creek water, for instance, and rangers at Lake Oroville State Recreation Area and Lassen Volcanic National Park lead hikes and teach visitors about the land at their respective visitor centers. Jon Aull, a local naturalist, leads educational hikes in his capacity as outdoor education coordinator at Chico State’s Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve. And now all that knowledge, which until this point was independently dispensed, can be presented to local schoolchildren in one neat package.

“Our goal is to offer local kids two to three outdoor science days a year,” said Tony Catalano, a former principal in the Thermalito Unified School District who now works at the Forebay Aquatic Center, organizing special events and school trips.

Thus far, OEFA has been embraced by not only local organizations that focus on science, the Earth and nature, but also by the kids. With the additional support of local school teachers and administrators, Catalano and Millard say they feel primed for a bright future.

OEFA’s steering committee, of which Millard and Catalano are both a part, has conducted surveys and assessments in order to put together a strategic plan through 2020. That plan includes a number of goals, from expanding the network of providers as well as training for educators to supporting providers in an attempt to offer more outdoor education opportunities.

“OEFA partners have the capacity to raise educational standards, contribute to healthier communities and support a deepened and expanded land stewardship ethic,” the plan reads. “Our future depends on people who respect and protect the earth.”

One of the biggest challenges the group has faced thus far, Catalano said, is funding. Naturally, OEFA hopes to someday raise enough money in grants—it’s already received two—and donations to pay for a small administrative staff. An example of how funding might expand access to field trips to places like the Forebay Aquatic Center or Lassen Volcanic National Park is the need for transportation.

“We’ve met with some of the principals from south county schools and we’re shocked to find out they have a $200 budget,” Millard said. “So even if we can get a great field trip organized, we can’t get [the students] there.”

Catalano, having worked in the Thermalito Unified School District, understands the area’s unique challenges. “South county is a place where we can make the biggest difference,” he said. Thus far, the majority of field trips and on-site programs have focused on the Oroville area. OEFA’s target audience, however, spans all the schools in Butte County.

“I feel like we’ve just gotten started,” Millard said.