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Show & tell at its finest

Bart Banks, Special to the Sun

For most elementary school students “living in the now,” cool experiences and learning come fast and furious via cyber this and Play Station that, virtual reality and www. It’s where do you want to go today without ever really going anywhere.There is something missing in the cyber process, something withdrawn and eerie about it all. Learning without substance, experience without contact. For Truckee Elementary students, things have taken a stride back toward the tangible. Learning you can see, feel and touch. And it’s all right here in our own non-virtual reality playground.Nearly 50 years ago, an area (13 kilometers) north of Truckee known as Sagehen Creek was staked out and built upon for field biologists, geologists and zoologists to study local fish and game, vegetation and geology; to take in what the area had to offer and learn from its inhabitants and the natural surroundings. Sagehen Creek Field Station became a living, breathing classroom for University of California, Berkeley researchers at a time when there was no Internet and little information about the area and its winged, gilled and four-legged creatures.With the foresight of Tahoe-Truckee High School Biology teacher Jeff Froelich and a creative developmental staff, including Russ Mann and Truckee Elementary School teachers Renee Arington and Mike Pyle, this research facility is used to educate local students; to take kids out of the standard classroom and expose them to a living, breathing learning environment full of creatures that make the Truckee area their home.In addition, the program incorporates winter recreational activities and survival skills to round out the experience. Why show students a picture of an animal in a textbook when they can ski into the wilderness and see it for themselves? Show and tell at its finest.And, so, the Sagehen Creek Outdoor Education Program was launched. Fifth-graders from the school get the unique opportunity to participate in a winter activity program to stimulate both their minds and bodies. Outdoor recreation is combined with winter survival skills, wildlife observation and tracking; highlighting the biological diversity of the area and its natural ecosystem.”We wanted to get the kids out here (to Sagehen) to show them just how many animals make this area their home,” explained Froelich, preparing hot chocolate and snacks in the research station kitchen for a group of 30 students. “Our focus is on the animals, to show the students how animals cope with winter. But we also wanted to incorporate winter survival and recreation into the whole experience.”You can hear them coming from a quarter mile, shrieks and yelps and hoots. As they approach, the silence is taken from the air and replaced with the cry of excited and anxious kids, making their way on cross-country. The peace and serenity of nature in this experience is being exposed to 30 students searching for a learning adventure in the backcountry.The mind and body education begins and ends on cross country skis for all participants (four miles round trip). What takes place in between involves avalanche beacons, compasses, snowshoes, animal tracking, orienteering and lots of wonder and amazement.”I was the last person to get here. I fell like 15 times. Painful on my backside,” said Daniel Uhulry, 10, a student in Mike Franeys fifth-grade class. “It was challenging. This was only my second time cross-country skiing but it was fun. We found the tracks of a large tree squirrel. I didnt know anything about animal tracks and tracking. Also there are a lot of animals here that Ive never seen or heard of before.”Like maybe a Tahoe Sucker, a Western Skink or a Pygmy Nuthatch, just three of the hundreds of fish, birds, reptiles, insects and mammals native to the Tahoe area and on display at the Sagehen museum along with the more familiar chipmunk, beaver, woodpecker, mountain lion, squirrel, porcupine, weasel and more.It isnt what the kids know about Sagehen and the winter program that makes the experience, but what they dontand the knowledge they ski out with.”There were a lot of things that I didnt know. Like, I thought the fox hibernated during the winter. It doesnt. It stays out all winter in the snow and looks for prey,” said Erin Matschke, 10, finishing her lunch and struggling to get her ski boots on for the return ski to the bus. “This was really fun. I really liked skiing here. I liked the whole experience.”When the kids arrive at Sagehen they are divided into three groups and following a quick snack, the experience splits three ways. One group of students snowshoes out with Froelich, in his 27th year of teaching at TTHS, and Barbara Robertson, an AmeriCorp volunteer, armed with clipboards, measuring tape and basic information to track animals in the wild. The group members locate and measure tracks and then use their knowledge to determine the type of animal they are tracking. Does the animal hop, walk or crawl? Does it have two legs or four? Claw extracted or not? The answers to these questions give a name and a shape to the simple tracks in the snow.The second group treks over to the Sagehen museum where Tina Summer, another AmeriCorp volunteer, provides first-hand information about the hundreds of preserved animals in the collection. The students see and identify the animals in the collection and best of all get to feel for themselves the thick coat of a mountain lion, the nearly weightless feathers of a woodpecker or the hard paddle-like tail of a beaver.The final group sets coordinates with program co-developer Pyle, known as “Mr. P” to his physical education students at Truckee Elementary, and snowshoes out to put their orienteering skills and avalanche training to the test.”In this program the kids get to learn in a whole new environment,” Pyle explained. “We try and give them information they can use with the emphasis on outdoor ecology and winter adaptation. How humans and animals adapt to the winter climate.”This program has been very successful. The kids really seem to take to it and the program is something that will get better over time.”During the winter survival training, every person in the team will perform a task whether it is shovel detail, compass reading or beacon operation. The group, using both compasses and beacons, works together to first locate the buried victim, a cardboard box dubbed either Avalanche Joe or Jane, and then uncover and extract Joe or Jane. Success in this venture is measured in the smiles on the faces of the students when they pull their cardboard victim from beneath the snow.”I didnt know how to use an avalanche beacon or a compass but I learned how,” 10-year-old David Susman explained following his groups successful rescue of Avalanche Joe. “Now I know how to use an avalanche beacon and Ill make sure to wear one (in the backcountry).”As one section of the Sagehen experience is completed the groups move on to the next until all participants have tracked, examined and orienteered their way through the Sagehen Field Research Station.”What we hope to accomplish here is a stewardship where through learning the kids help protect the environment and the animals that live here. We also hope to gain an appreciation for winter,” Froelich said. “I thought we needed a winter program so we developed one.”It was a perfect fit and Froelich was the perfect liaison between the Sagehen facility and the Truckee schools. He was able to get knowledge-hungry junior researchers to take advantage of the information available at the field station and the students got a living, breathing classroom. What started as a pilot program last year was able to handle the entire Truckee Elementary fifth grade this year and, given the proper funding, will offer even more programs for the following school year.”We would like to get even more students involved in this program next year and take it up a notch with the high school students mentoring, teaching the fifth graders. That would allow us to work in smaller groups and hopefully provide more information. We would also like to offer Fall and Spring programs in addition to the Winter program for next year,” explained Froelich. “This year the feedback on the program has been great. Not only are the students having a good time, but they are getting a beneficial learning experience as well. There is also a lot of excitement from the kids who want to pursue something in this field of study.Currently, the winter program is funded through grants from the Alpine Winter Foundation and the Community Foundation as well as support from Northstar-at-Tahoe, Safeway, Truckee Bagels, Porters Ski and Sport and Gary Murphy, avalanche control at Alpine Meadows.But funding is of no concern to the students who just want to learn. While some of the fifth graders might have skied into the Sagehen research station excited for an excused absence from a day in the classroom, most, if not all, skied away with a greater understanding and appreciation of the environment around them and the animals that inhabit it. In fact, what went unnoticed on the ski in did not escape the newly trained, watchful eyes on the ski out.”Hey, look, I found some tracks,” Uhulry yelled to his buddies, trying to catch his breath and stay upright on his skis while pointing to the animal tracks. “What do you think it is? It sure is big. A mountain lion? A bear? Its too big for a dog or a wolf.”While none of the boys were able to come to a firm conclusion on the type of animal that they crossed tracks with, what Daniel and his fellow classmates discovered during a few hours at Sagehen was an experience which opened their minds and their eyes to the amazing environment around them n a hands-on, non-virtual reality winter environment teaming with wildlife, biological diversity and recreational activity.


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