Throwback: Learning It All In The Great Outdoors

September 1995 cover image. This cover was underwritten by Secon Corporation. Photo of Summerfield Office Park by Vortex Imaging

Throwback with TODAY

Learning It All In The Great Outdoors

January 1996 pages 58 Boyce Middle School's sixth graders go camping to top off a year of award-winning environmental education.

This May, for the 12th straight year, the 300 sixth grade students of Boyce Middle School will eagerly climb aboard buses headed for Deer Valley YMCA camp in Somerset County. Their three-day trip into the woods will cap their participation in one of Pennsylvania's most widely acclaimed environmental education programs.

Boyce's award-winning "How To Be an Earthwarden" program was developed by Howard O'Shell, now in his 29th year as an Upper St. Clair teacher. But as the exceedingly humble O'Shell hastens to insist, it continues to run smoothly and successfully because of the cooperation of hundreds of administrators, teachers and parents.

Sixth-graders spend the whole year preparing for Deer Valley. Not only do they learn relevant information in their classrooms- everything from studying the status of endangered species to making a "situpon" to use in the woods - but they also participate in fundraising activities or work contracts to earn the $95 it costs for each student to attend. It is requested that parents not simply give their children the money for the trip.

The May excursion is actually five separate trips, each of them carrying 60 students and 40 adults to Deer Valley, where "the world becomes a classroom," as O'Shell puts it. After an initial swearing-in ceremony (including a pledge of good behavior), the sixth-graders conduct environmental observations, learn about animal populations, and study the effect of pesticides. Night walks and "grokking" (which enhances sensory awareness by requiring participants to function without one of their senses) bring additional outdoor surprises before the wide-eyed youths settle down for a sound sleep at the Deer Valley lodge.

The second day brings lessons on air, water, and noise pollution, along with lighter activities like fishing and a hike to the top of Mount Davis, Pennsylvania's highest point. "It's an easy hike - for the kids," O'Shell says. The final day includes a fossil hunt and the development of an "earthwarden action plan," as the students reflect on what they have learned and agree on actions they will take to benefit the environment. Each group of students shares its action plan and its own "earthwarden pledge" at a schoolwide assembly after all five Deer Valley trips are completed. Prior groups' actions have included assessing the acidity level of a nearby stream, cleaning up vacant lots, and contacting legislators on current environmental issues.

O'Shell, who also trains fellow teachers in environmental education for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, is always looking to improve the program. This year, for example, he has been investigating ways to upgrade the lesson on air pollution for the 1996-1997 Student Manual. O'Shell plans to create a lesson using inexpensive air sniffers (like those found at pollution monitoring stations) to simulate the impact of pollution.

One wouldn't think the program needs much improvement from a review of the honors it has garnered, including awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

This is actually the 18th year of overnight trips for O'Shell. From 1979 to 1984 he took Fort Couch Middle School students to the McKeever Environmental Center North of Slippery Rock. Over the years "How To Be an Earthwarden" has received significant support from the Upper St. Clair Jaycees and the Alcoa Foundation, along with the strong backing of school administrators, board members, teachers, and parents - as illustrated by the hundreds of adults who have made time to serve as chaperones. O'Shell remembers with particular gratitude the contribution of one parent, the late Howard Beisel, a parent who helped write the material on water quality for the Earthwarden manual.

While many staff members at Boyce are involved in planning for Deer Valley, O'Shell provides the leadership that pulls all the parts together. "Howard is a wonderful facilitator," says Beverly Krill, Boyce's principal. "He works smoothly with all the staff and parents, and his heart guides him to do things that are good for children."

In addition, four Boyce faculty - Jim Smoyer and Jim Reeves from the science department, music teacher Daria Lacey, and language arts and social studies teacher Myrna Wiese - play major roles as members of the school's environmental education committee. Lacey, who studied with a Native American flutist in Colorado last summer, will enhance this year's program by playing her handmade bamboo flutes and by sharing the Native American story of how the flute originated.

Jim Whalen of the Upper St. Clair school board traveled to Deer Valley in 1994 with his daughter Kylie and looks forward to returning this spring with Lindsay. "It's a well-organized program and a great way to experience an educational project with your child," he says.

"It's a time when teachers, parents, and children work together to make each other better," says Lacey. "That's what makes Deer Valley so special."

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