Fifth-graders return to North Cascades Institute
Years ago, Methow Valley fifth-graders began attending Mountain School, an environmental education program offered by North Cascades Institute (NCI) in partnership with North Cascades National Park. Held at the Environmental Learning Center on the shores of Diablo Lake, Mountain School is a three-day program that gives each student 26 hours of learning about the natural world — the equivalent of one month in their science class at school.
“Through hands-on activities, students are connected to the natural and cultural history of our region, form connections with their classmates and the environment, and sharpen their understanding of their own identities and discover their place in the world — as someone intricately connected within the web of all living things,” NCI says.
Two weeks ago, after a two-year COVID hiatus, Methow Valley fifth-graders were back at Mountain School. The students were accompanied by three fifth-grade teachers — Jane Orme, Brooke DeVlieg and Sabrina Freedman — as well as six chaperones. Although they registered as a single large group, they spent their days in four smaller groups of about 15 each.
Each day the groups hit the trail, stopping en route for learning activities. Orme said, “All of the activities infused relationship building, with respect for self and the environment.” Examples included Camouflage (a game in which students investigated, through play, the relationships between predator and prey); Each One Teach One (the building of a web of plant and animal connectedness); and a lab session where students investigated close-up studies of objects found along the trail using microscopes.
During their time in the lab students also “studied a variety of preserved animal specimens, such as a mallard duck that had died while swallowing a fish,” Orme said.
Some students had opportunities to search for benthic macroinvertebrates (worms, crustaceans, stonefly nymphs, etc.) and study them — an experience summed up by one student as “we caught bugs in the creek and looked at them under microscopes.”
“This helped students better understand insect life cycle, the difference between micro and macro, and the unseen world of the river ecosystem” Orme said.
Good food, fun games
Contrary to many camp experiences, the food was “incredible,” the group reported. It was “all vegetarian and with it some lessons from our chef about why and how this wholesome food is prepared and served,” Orme said.
“The eggs and pancakes, the syrup and ketchup were so good,” one student said, a sentiment echoed by others. Still other students claimed that their favorites were the oatmeal, chili, mac and cheese, salad bar choices and cookies.
At night, groups gathered around a campfire to watch skits, sing songs and play games. “We sang a new version of ‘Country Road,’ by John Denver,” a student reported.
Another student mentioned how much fun the game “Screaming Toes” was. “We looked at peoples’ toes and then on the signal you looked up to see who was looking at you. If your eyes met, you stepped out.”
The second day at NCI was an all-day hike, with one group traveling to Diablo Dam, another walking to a scenic overlook on the lake, and a third making the tough trek to a waterfall. “I’ll remember the waterfallc—ca real long hike, by the way,” one student wrote while reflecting on the NCI experience.
During the hikes the groups paused for academic exploration. “Some groups had opportunities to notice how the difference in elevation and riparian zones affects differences in plant life,” Orme said, “while others used rock hammers to split rocks to better understand the metamorphic mountain building that happened in the North Cascades. Students in a different group used their adventure to investigate decomposers and their effect on the decaying forest.”
“Most of our students can also now identify stinging nettles due to their curiosity about the plant’s adaptation,” Orme added.
At least one student absorbed some useful knowledge about stinging nettles. “One thing I’ll remember is that the spores on the back of a sword fern will stop the sting from a stinging nettle.”
After the hikes, groups rejoined to learn about animal skulls. “Students got to hold models of different animal skulls and notice nuances that make each skull unique. Groups were able to determine differences between carnivores and herbivores. Also, students communicated with each other about their observations before speaking to the entire class about their group’s skull,” Orme said, adding that she and the other teachers will “refer back to this lesson later in the year when students learn about animal adaptations.”
Why connections matter
On the final day, after packing up and cleaning their dorm-style rooms with shared bathrooms and common areas, students were back on the trail for more learning activities, games, and a closing ceremony.
“The closing ceremony was designed to help students notice their connection to the North Cascades mountains, National Park and ecosystem,” said Orme. One of the NCI instructors guided the students through reflection such as “Why does connection to this place matter?” “How are you connected to your home community?” and “What are two ways you want to help your community when you return home?”
This intentionality about taking something home from NCI was reinforced by the letters students wrote to their future selves, which will be mailed to them at a later date. Perhaps these letters, upon arrival, will jog the students’ memory to reconnect to people and/or places, or to get involved in their community.
When the two school buses showed up to transport the group home, the students waved goodbye to their mountain classroom and, said Orme, “returned to our campus well-nourished by the beauty of the natural world and their active participation in it.”