Like foraging ants, dozens of students, parents and teachers methodically combed a piece of beach on the Key Peninsula last week.
Kai Hendrix, 13, an eighth grader, proudly shows off two sea stars inside an oyster shell to two younger students.
“Whoa, that is really cool,” said sixth grader Lizzy Renecker, 11, clearly impressed.
The group is part of a program from Marshall Middle School in Olympia called Citizen Science Institute. The program gives students first-hand instruction on science, the environment and leadership.
More than 40 students took the drive north to spend three days at Camp Colman, a 100-acre sliver of wooded land on the western shore of the Key Peninsula with commanding views of Harstine Island and the Puget Sound.
“Our mission is to get students out to do field-based study,” said Tom Condon, science teacher and one of the program coordinators. “We are asking a lot of the students, and we have (high) expectations of them.”
Condon said the goal for the next three days was “to develop a strong sense of community and responsibility to one another.”
The program, as Condon explains it, will help students experience their world firsthand.
“I really like being hands-on with learning,” Auby Clark, a confident sixth grader, said. “We’re not stuck in the classroom. We’re really out there.”
Out there meant a beach along Case Inlet where the students searched the tide pools for marine life under a bright young sun that was just barely clearing the tops of firs and cedars to the east.
“Our students will learn to do real science with the real scientists,” Matthew Phillipy, the other program coordinator, said. “We’ll collect data for (the Department of Ecology and Pacific Shellfish Institute) that they will actually use. Through that experience these students will learn how to be real scientists.”
They could not have picked a better venue.
“It’s a beautiful place. Amazing place out here,” Condon said of Camp Colman.
The camp is operated by the YMCA of Greater Seattle, which bought this former fish hatchery some 30 years ago. The camp offers programs in the spring, summer and fall. It can host up to 250 people in 16 rustic cabins, a lodge with a dining hall, a 6-acre lagoon and a half-mile long beach. The few miles of trails that meander through the forests act as hallways to the many outdoor classrooms scattered throughout the property.
But this is not just a class for beachcombers or hikers.
“A big piece of what we are trying to do out here is help these kids emerge as leaders,” Phillipy said. “These students are learning to build bonds through different challenges.”
Up in the hills, nestled deep inside groves of firs, cedars, maples and hemlocks, are challenge courses that include the “Catwalk” — a log 35 feet above the forest floor — and the “Giant Swing” — a system of ropes and pulleys that dangle people like pendulums between majestic trees.
“We are learning communication skills out here,” Phillipy said. “How to lead, how to follow and how to overcome challenges together even though you come from diverse backgrounds.”
Working together, the students help each other overcome their fears.
“People sometimes are scared, but they really shouldn’t be,” said Cedar Anzalone, a wiry seventh grader with long black hair.
Anzalone’s advice: “They should just go for it.”
Still, the sheer height of the obstacles must be daunting. As the students emerge from a trail of ferns, they see a giant cedar with a rope hanging four stories up from its leafy canopy.
“We really encourage kids to swing outside of their comfort zone — we call that the growth zone,” said Katie Carlisle, an outdoor and environmental instructor at the camp.
By taking that often scary swing, Carlisle said, “It is really a good opportunity for them to build character.”
Carlisle explained that the challenge course at the camp are “challenge by choice activities.” This means the camp instructors empower participants to leave their comfort zone while giving them the final say on how far they will go.
“The kids learn things that they didn’t know they could learn,” said camp facilitator and lead instructor Jill Escobar. “Whether that is climbing really high up the climbing tower and reaching that goal, or learning something new about this world that we live in — like something in our forest or on our beach, things they could totally geek out on.
“I love being able to facilitate those ‘Wow!’ moments,” Escobar said.
The affable facilitator is no stranger to camps. “I grew up in it,” she laughs, as she animatedly talked about her childhood summers camping in New England woods.
She talked about the serenity of the forests, the wildlife, its mesmerizing soundtrack.
As if on cue, the squeals and laughter of sixth, seventh and eighth graders filled the air.
“The kids have all this energy and we feed off of that,” Escobar said.
The camp works with local schools to provide instruction in the outdoors and the environment.
The students from Olympia pay $150 at the beginning of the year to get in the program, with $120 of that fee going to pay for their stay at the camp. A way for families to make payments to the program has also been set up, Condon said. For families who truly cannot contribute, he said, they ask the parents to donate their time.
According to Brittany Langdon, the assistant director for the outdoor and environmental program at the camp, the YMCA also offers scholarships that help defray the cost of attending camp.
“You get eyeballs popping” as children see and feel a forest for the first time, Langdon said.
This is why the camp is here, she said. “It’s a blast watching these kids.”
For parents in the program like Rebekkah Vielbaum, coming to camp has definitely been worth it.
“This has been a real amazing experience,” Vielbaum said. “It gets kids out of their comfort zone and out of their cliques.”
She said being at camp has been a very inclusive experience for her two daughters.
“That is part of the spirit (of the program). I love that,” she said.
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