Tahoe-Truckee organizations work to get children excited about science | SierraSun.com

Tahoe-Truckee organizations work to get children excited about science

Children have fun exploring science inside the yurt at the Winter Discovery Center in Tahoe City.
Courtesy Ashley Phillips |

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — Here among the high peaks of the Sierra, we live in an amazing natural classroom. Every Tahoe/Truckee kid should be an expert on forest ecology, hydrology and geology.

But these days with busy schedules, parental fear and some schools geared toward preparing children for testing and college, children are not spending as much time playing in the forest and learning about nature.

Fortunately, a variety of local organizations have stepped up to the plate to fill the nature knowledge gap.

They are teaching children to get excited about science and the natural world and in doing so, better understand themselves.

Here are three local organizations taking on this challenge:

SWEP (Sierra Watershed Education Partnerships) — 4swep.org

SWEP has a long list of programs geared toward developing an interest in children in becoming good global citizens, including an Environmental and Sustainability Club, in which students meet and explore green service projects such as recycling, and energy conservation.

“Our mission is trying to promote stewardship, connecting students to the environment,” says Executive Director Missy Mohler. “Service learning is a big part of what we do.”

The Tahoe Basin Watershed Education Summit is another example of SWEP success.

For several years, students monitored Blackwood Canyon for three days to provide the science needed to develop programs to restore damaged sections of the canyon.

The students came from all over the region to test the creek’s water, evaluate the condition of the habitat, and graph the data.

“Just because you live around nature, it doesn’t mean you know it. In a classroom at Tahoe, you learn the same thing you learn in Sacramento. We need to take advantage of where we live,” says Mohler.

It’s a win-win with SWEP’s U.S. Forest Service partners as well. While the Forest Service had the money to do restoration work in Blackwood, it needed the human power of all those students, and a grant from Clif Bar, to obtain data to make sure the restoration program is a success.

“I want to teach kids they can make a difference,” Mohler says.

Another important program at SWEP is the Winter Discovery Center in the yurt at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area.

There, students are taught hands-on winter science information and survival skills, and then see the science up close while skiing the Tahoe XC trails.

Headwaters Science Institute — headwatersscienceinstitute.org

Just a year old, the Headwaters Science Institute is off and running with the unique goal of teaching students how to ask the right questions and build their own research projects in the areas of wetlands, geology and forest science.

In an era where students are taught to follow instructions and memorize material, Headwaters is trying to get them to figure it out on their own.

Co-Director Mary Ellen Benier says, “We want to instill in them the intrigue of asking your own questions — delving into science.”

For example, Benier talks about a group of third-graders in Auburn who were assigned the task of looking at bugs.

The children noticed what the bugs were doing and what they ate, and came up with their own questions to ask, and how to collect the data to better understand the bugs.

The process involves brainstorming and stream of consciousness thinking instead of listening to a lecture.

“It’s amazing how when you get a kid out of the classroom, it changes everything,” says Benier.

Gateway Mountain Center — sierraexperience.org

Gateway Mountain Center Director Peter Mayfield says the organization’s goal is to “prepare tomorrow’s citizens to create roles in an emerging green society through exploration of the natural world.”

One of the center’s many roles is to run the wellness program for Sierra High School in Truckee.

“Right now, kids from the school are waist deep in the Van Norden Meadow mapping the locations and conditions of the western toad,” says Mayfield. “The data they collect will help determine how the meadow will be restored. This hits them on a lot of levels.”

The students exercise, learn about science, and discover the satisfaction of having a positive impact.

One goal of the program is to “improve resiliency and lower the incidence of alcohol and drug abuse,” says Mayfield.

Each year, more than 1,800 children from fifth- through 12th-grade attend three- and four-day programs put on by Gateway Mountain Center on Donner Summit.

The students come from a wide range of locations and backgrounds. They do field science, study human history and learn about the environment.

Then, they expand their physical and mental comfort zones by taking on outdoor adventures such as rock climbing, snowshoeing, hiking, backcountry skiing and swimming in cold mountain lakes.

They are also introduced to meditation and journal writing. It’s a program designed to connect kids with nature — and in doing so, help them to discover who they are.

Tim Hauserman, a nearly lifelong resident of Tahoe City, is a freelance author and cross-country ski instructor. He wrote “Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children” as well as “Gertrude’s Tahoe Adventures in Time.” He may be reached at writeonrex@yahoo.com.