Outdoor School

By Dick Mason, The Observer May 25, 2012 12:55 pm

Stella Mayfield sixth-graders set up a stream table provided by the Grande Ronde Model Watershed. DICK MASON / The Observer
Stella Mayfield sixth-graders set up a stream table provided by the Grande Ronde Model Watershed. DICK MASON / The Observer

Students learn plant identification and survival skills, animal tracking and much more

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Leonard Erickson was not revealing his secret to these Stella Mayfield School sixth-graders.

What Erickson was revealing were the keys to an art that most adults have never practiced, one that sheds light on nature’s mysteries.  

Erickson was leading sixth-graders at the Blue Mountain 4-H Center in a radio telemetry  tracking exercise. They were trying to locate a stuffed turkey hidden in the forest.

A bird with an electronic pulse.

Attached to the turkey was a transmitter emitting a regular beep. A transmitter just like those ODFW biologists attach when they are tracking live turkeys, deer, elk, wolves, cougars and other wildlife. 

Stella Mayfield sixth-grader Riley Baker was carrying a receiver that was picking up the signals being emitted by the stuffed turkey’s transmitter.

Erickson encouraged the other students to listen to the beeping sound of the receiver Baker was receiving.

“You can’t see anything. The person with the receiver has the eyes,’’ the biologist told the students walking with Baker. 

Students responded by listening more closely to the transmitter.

“Your ears are your eyes,’’ Erickson told the children.

The signal was growing stronger so the sixth-graders, walking south, knew they were moving in the right direction. 

 Erickson knew where the turkey was hidden but was skillfully pretending he did not. He was also making the Stella Mayfield sixth-graders feel as if they were ODFW staff members helping track live turkeys.

“We better hurry up. We have 19 more turkeys to find after this one,’’ Erickson said in his friendly manner. 

 Erickson wanted to give the students a feel of the pressure and expectations they would be facing had they been tracking live turkeys with transmitters while with the ODFW. Multiple turkeys are tracked by the ODFW to help biologists learn about movement patterns. 

Minutes later, the children found the stuffed turkey behind some brush. The discovery delighted the children, all of whom had clearly been immersed in the search. 

“It is neat to see kids so excited about science,’’ Erickson said.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Leonard Erickson shows Stella Mayfield School sixth-grader Riley Baker how  to operate a radio telemetry receiver. Submitted photo
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Leonard Erickson shows Stella Mayfield School sixth-grader Riley Baker how to operate a radio telemetry receiver. Submitted photo

The skill of tracking via radio telemetry was one of countless things students learned during this month’s outdoor school, which lasted three days and two nights at the Blue Mountain 4-H Center near Summerville.

A portion of what the students learned was a credit to people like Jesse Steele and Leigh Collins of the Grande Ronde Model Watershed. Collins and Steele set up stream tables filled with sand. Students then created river channels, put in items like vegetation and models of fishermen. Water was then poured in, allowing students to see how it changes water channels and the damage flooding causes.

Some students were so taken by the demonstration that they talked as if they wanted to pursue careers in watershed management, said Sandy Rysdam, who teaches language arts and reading for grades 6-8 at Stella Mayfield School. 

Rysdam helped lead the outdoor school with Carolyn Erickson, a grade 6-8 math and science teacher at Stella Mayfield.

Students in Emily Sorensen’s natural sciences class also provided the sixth-graders a big assist. They taught lessons on plant identification, survival skills, animal tracking, soil layers and more. Sorensen found that some of her students who struggle in school became passionate about their subject matter when they learned they were going to teach it. The result was inspiring.

“They were some of our best teachers,’’ Sorensen said

Sorensen also noted that a number of her students who tend to be shy came alive when they were teaching, displaying more outgoing personalities. 

Rysdam said Sorensen’s students did such a good job of teaching that it meant the program’s high school counselors did not have to spend as much time assisting with instructional sessions as they have in the past. Instead, the counselors could spend more time helping in other ways. The outdoor school had six counselors this year — Ty Bowen, Hannah Mayer, Jessica Bottger, Curtis Little, Brian Collins and Leanna Thompson. All had attended outdoor school as sixth-graders at Stella Mayfield.   

“Just to see that they want to come back is tremendous,’’ Rysdam said.

She said many wanted to work at the outdoor school because they were inspired by a counselor who mentored them when they were sixth-graders. Carolyn Erickson said it was inspiring to see how the students have matured to the point that they can serve as mentors.

“It is very rewarding to see. The sixth-graders look up to them,’’ she said. 

Only sophomores and juniors can be chosen as counselors. Freshman are not selected because they are too young, and seniors are not chosen because they are too busy, Rysdam said.

 The counselors, who stayed in cabins with the sixth-graders, were responsible for monitoring their safety, keeping them engaged, assisting with programs and more. 

The many things they assisted with included flashlight tag, one the most popular games played at the outdoor school. 

 Flashlight tag is played at night within set boundaries. The student who is “it’’ looks for people hiding behind bushes and trees. If the searcher succeeds in shining a light on someone, that individual is “tagged’’ and has to begin searching for fellow students with a flashlight.

The production of skits were  another popular recreational activity for students. 

Some of the most popular skits were ones in which students did imitations of teachers, Rysdam said. 

The outdoor school had a number of visitors from Stella Mayfield School including Tim Troutman, a middle school social studies teacher  who taught students who make birdhouses. He did so with wood donated by Boise Cascade.

Stella Mayfield Principal Dianne Greif also gave a presentation, teaching the sixth-graders how to make paper from wood pulp. The paper the students made was used to create Mother’s Day cards.

The Elgin Outdoor School has been operating for about three decades — and at the Blue Mountain 4-H Center for 13 years. The school was moved to the 4-H center in 1999 from Bar M Ranch on the Umatilla River. 

Over the past three decades, outdoor school has become a rite of passage for Stella Mayfield sixth-graders, an experience forever etched in their memories. Rysdam said this is apparent when she asks older Elgin students what they remember most about sixth grade. Many answer without hesitation. 

“Outdoor school pops up right away,’’ Rysdam said.