Truckee expeditionary students learning by doing |

Truckee expeditionary students learning by doing

SELS students assembling tents for their expeditionary fieldwork.
Courtesy photo |

There’s something to the old adage about learning by doing. When kids learn, whether it’s math or history or science, for many that knowledge seems to stick better when they can associate an action with the learning.

That’s the basic premise behind the Expeditionary Learning model. Students learn in a classroom setting and then solidify that knowledge out in the field in a number of ways — doing science experiments, reenacting historical events, calculating real-life math scenarios, and continuously writing about those experiences.

Sierra Expeditionary Learning School opened its doors to K-5 students in the fall of 2010, and has since expanded to serve K-8.

A big part of the SELS curriculum is “fieldwork,” the expeditionary component of the school. For many first time SELS students, fieldwork means their very first time away from mom and dad, their very first time camping overnight and sleeping in a tent.

And though fieldwork usually involves camping, it is no vacation for the students. Their days out on fieldwork are packed with learning and new experiences that tie directly in with all the classroom work they have done.

SELS students have studied geology in Lassen Volcanic National Park, the history of the Gold Rush at “Gold Rush Days” in Coloma, local history through a scavenger hunt in downtown Truckee, learning about where our food comes from by exploring nearby farms, and learning about cell biology at the Stanford University Medical School.

“The number of days out on fieldwork directly correlates with the age of our students,” notes SELS director David Manahan. “Our kindergartners and first graders generally do one or two overnights during the year. Once the kids get into middle school, they are doing several multi-night expeditions a year.”

“The success of fieldwork is heavily dependent on parent volunteers, but the kids are expected to do a lot of the work,” he adds. “They set up their own tents, take turns helping prepare meals and participating in clean up duty, in addition to their learning responsibilities.”

The school provides the tents and all the food on expeditions, but each student must provide his or her own sleeping bag, and personal clothing.

SELS applied for and was awarded a grant from the Tahoe Truckee Excellence in Education Foundation last fall to replace their worn out tents with new and much more durable ones.

“Awarding grant monies for tents was a first for us, but since camping is a key component of the SELS educational curriculum, the Foundation felt that it was a fit in keeping with our mission of supporting local public education,” says Excellence in Education Executive Director Laura Abbey Brown.

The first shipment of tents has arrived at SELS and will very soon be put into use for springtime fieldwork.

Shelly Purdy is a board member for Excellence in Education Foundation. Over the past 25 years, the Foundation has provided more than $2.8 million in grants to teachers and programs within TTUSD that directly impact students and their learning experience. For information, visit

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