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Students learn science at Sagehen field station

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunTruckee Elementary School fifth-graders listen to an al fresco lecture Monday during a field trip at Sagehen Creek field research station.
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It’s 9:30 in the morning and still chilly at Sagehen Creek, the University of California’s environmental research facility north of Truckee.

Twelve miles away from their regular classroom at Truckee Elementary School, several dozen students start their school day outdoors at the 56-year-old field research station.

Of the two fifth-grade classes at Sagehen Wednesday, half the students are ending their three-day course and half are just arriving.



As the arriving students form a circle, teacher Elizabeth Ford and Sagehen Assistant Manager Faerthen Felix give an introductory talk about the Sagehen Creek watershed.

“It is about 9,000 acres … and we’ve been doing watershed research since 1951,” Felix tells the students. “Who knows what a watershed is?”



Environmental Educator Doug Thayer, 26, leads a contingent of newcomers to their new digs ” three rustic cabins surrounded with pines. The cabins lack running water, but are equipped with four bunkbeds apiece. The boys and girls are divided into separate camps about a tenth of a mile from each other.

As they walk from the drop-off area, the students struggle with their luggage.

“It burns, it feels like someone put fire in my shoulders,” exclaims 10-year-old Steven Bonavita as he drags a stack of bags nearly his height.

As they walk to the cabins that will be their home for the next two nights, Thayer asks one boy, who shortcuts a switchback, to turn around and follow the trail.

“I want to give them a good idea of how we can decrease our impact,” Thayer said.

This is the inaugural year for the three-week Sagehen Field Trip, a field study for students from Truckee Elementary and Glenshire Elementary schools, according to teacher Candy Blesse.

The fifth-grade instructor started the science-based field trip to give students hands-on science experience in a program that incorporates plenty of math and English.

“My purpose is for kids to learn about their own back yard ” develop a sense of place and ownership of that place in which they live,” Blesse said. “I’m a firm believer that if I can make a small handful of students understand that they have the power to make a difference ” then it’s worth it.”

Designed by Blesse and her teacher colleagues, Cathy Echols and Katie Old, the new program is a mix of old-fashioned summer camp, plant and insect research, and a watershed study.

The program started Sept. 17 and continues to Oct. 4.

According to Blesse, the field school employs two environmental educators, two U.C. Berkeley fellows and two volunteer teachers from Sierra Watershed Education Partnerships to bolster the program’s classroom component. She said the program would not exist without the help of parent volunteers.

The students are kept busy from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. learning about Sagehen Creek’s water quality and the importance of maintaining healthy watersheds.

Blesse said the students are fortified with a some lessons before they arrive, and afterward are visited at school by the scientists they met at the field station.

She said the next field trip is tentatively planned for April.


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