William Zamora, Yomaira Angulo and Anthony Montoya learned how to make sure river water is safe for drinking, how some leaves can clear stuffy noses and how to handle snakes.
"It was cool because we could learn how to survive," said Anthony, 12, a sixth-grader at Kirschen Elementary School in south Modesto. Yomaira said they learned more street smarts.
The sixth-grade class couldn't collect enough money to attend an outdoor education program this year, so teachers came up with a creative solution — overnight camping on campus last week.
Outdoor education — formerly called science camp — is a rite of passage for many. Usually done during sixth grade, many adults fondly remember the trip away from home, camping in tents or staying in cabins with classmates and learning about the outdoors.
But persuading people and businesses to donate money in this economy is a challenge. Parent-teacher associations or parents usually pay for outdoor ed, but the Kirschen community does not have a large parent-teacher network and most students come from low- income families, said Amy DeMoura, intervention specialist and student council co-adviser.
Kirschen organizers were working toward $10,000 in donations for outdoor education but had raised only about $2,000 by April. When teachers realized they weren't going to reach the target, they started thinking of alternatives.
"We didn't want them to miss out. They worked so hard to raise money; it was the culmination of their hard work," DeMoura said about the sixth-graders.
Teachers decided to plan a shorter, overnight campout on campus.
DeMoura organized the campout with three other Kirschen staff members: her husband, Joel DeMoura, fifth-grade teacher and co-adviser of the student council; third-grade teacher Greg Hoagland; and sixth-grade teacher Ralph Price.
Teachers could have canceled the outdoor event, but they said it provides important learning outside the classroom. Students gain life skills to cope with the environment around them, Joel DeMoura said.
Nature hike and tent tips
Once Principal Rob Williams gave the green light, teachers sent permission slips home and gathered emergency contact phone numbers. About half the parents let their children attend.
After school June 19, students at the year-round school took a nature hike in Tuolumne River Regional Park. They returned to Kirschen for barbecued hot dogs. Teachers donated their tents for the night and Boy Scouts representatives helped show students how to set up tents in the school's grassy quad.
Each tent was named for an insect. Students learned about the bugs, then designed flags for each tent. They gathered around a campfire and sang songs. Students ate gooey s'mores, produced comedy skits and danced to a DJ's thumping tunes.
While students had fun, several adults stayed up through the night to watch the campus. They were in addition to a security guard hired for the evening.
Students were raving when they came back to school Monday, Amy DeMoura said, so organizers hope to do it again next year.
Outdoor education allows students to learn about nature, but it also exposes them to activities and experiences outside their usual world.
"It's learning about aspects new to them," she said.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2339.