Truckee students get hands-on learning during wildflower hikes
MOUNT ROSE, Nev. — It’s a sunny, warm fall day as a small group of students gather at the Mt. Rose Summit Trailhead. They are sitting and standing around their teacher with their notebooks open, sharing facts about the various wildflowers found around the Tahoe Basin.
These students are ninth and 10th graders from the Tahoe Expedition Academy and during the week of Oct. 10-14, they hiked in various locations in Tahoe, looking for the wildflowers they’ve spent all semester learning about in their elective course.
TEA is a fully accredited, independent school serving grades Pre-K to 12 which aims to reimagine education, and to rethink what a school looks by teaching with a hands-on, project-based approach that includes fieldwork and adventure.
Each semester, students pick an elective which meets three days a week for one hour a day. Throughout the course, the students take art lessons on drawing the flowers, write limericks and short stories about the flowers and will be responsible for writing a biography about their chosen flowers.
“I’ve lived in Tahoe my whole life and I’ve known some of the flowers and some of the plants but never as much as I’ve wanted to know, it’s cool to know everything because you can be more in touch,” said Zeb Schreider, 15, when asked why he chose this elective.
As part of the elective, the students have one intensive week during which they spend the whole week with their chosen elective, not participating in any of their other classes. The Mt. Rose hike was part of the intensive week, as well as a hike at Sagehen Creek north of Truckee and Barker Pass, on the West Shore.
Emily Reid, TEA’s individualized adventure program director said during the hikes, kids learn to be present and “grow an appreciation for the flowers and wildlife here.”
“I think it’s really important to learn about the environments around us because you can preach climate awareness all you want but without knowing what’s around you, you can’t really do anything,” Autumn Carpenter, 15, said, adding that she’s already learned that some of the wildlife that’s common in Lake Tahoe is rare everywhere else which has given her a greater appreciation for it.
The course is taught by Laird Blackwell, one of Lake Tahoe’s leading experts in wildflowers. He’s written six books on wildflowers and eight books in total and has been teaching wildflower courses for almost 40 years.
“For me, in the books and in the classes, the goal is to not just look at them as scientific curiosities, and taxonomy and identification and all that but also as fellow creatures on the planet,” Blackwell said.
He added that he likes to teach his students the flower’s personality, “its unique way of living its life and little hints of living we can get from them.”
Blackwell is also a professor of psychology and humanities at Sierra Nevada College.
“All of my books and my classes are trying to bridge the gap between technical and humanistic, so I also bring in literature and philosophy because flowers are actually quite philosophical, they have all sorts of wisdom,” Blackwell said.
Students still learn the scientific aspects of the flowers. Throughout the hike, they were able to rattle off family names of the flowers, identify the anatomy, as well as, the medicinal, culinary and cultural uses of the flowers.
“These students are so impressive because the classification piece can be very challenging and they’ve only been learning them for two or three weeks and they’re able to label them and their family already,” Reid said.
The Mt. Rose hike was about six miles. Throughout the hike, Blackwell would stop periodically to point out different plants and flowers, and ask students questions about the plants.
It was awe-inspiring to watch the students during the hike. While they are still teenagers so there were plenty of games and horseplay on the trail, they were also quite engaged, picking up interesting wildlife to show to Blackwell and asking plenty of questions.
Blackwell said he encourages hands-on learning, while still teaching the students not to be destructive.
“We don’t pick any ones that are unusual, we only pick them if there are a lot of them and even then, we show our gratitude. I’m figuring that if they really get to know the secret world in the flower, they might appreciate it more, so we sacrifice one for the good of the many,” Blackwell said.
“I think the best part of this class by far is that it’s hands-on learning … because you can look at pictures as much as you want but without seeing things in their natural environment and other natural variables, it’s not really learning,” Carpenter said.
To learn more about TEA, visit https://www.tahoeexpeditionacademy.org/.
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