After a 34-year career teaching middle-schoolers, Ron Leonard didn’t want to just retire and never have the opportunity to interact with children who are eager to soak up new information.
Of course, spending time in beautiful Beazell Memorial Forest serves as an extra benefit.
“This keeps me in touch with the kids and gets me outdoors,” said Leonard, a Corvallis resident who spent most of his time teaching in the Eugene area. “The last 10, 12 years, I had sixth graders — math, science, technology — and that’s where I really learned to get outdoors and take kids outdoors and learn to enjoy it.”
Volunteering with the Oregon State University Benton County 4-H’s field-based “FOCUS” program, Leonard and others like him spent time last week teaching Philomath third graders a variety of topics from forest birds to cultural history.
Leonard taught the kids about macroinvertebrates.
“We have kids find them; I help them identify what they’re looking for,” Leonard said a few minutes before descending from a trail with a group of kids to the banks of Plunkett Creek. “There’s a lot to know about macroinvertebrates. Mostly they’re fish food, but more importantly depending on the type and number of macroinvertebrates we find, it also is another check on the quality of the water.”
How does one approach third graders with what could be a bit of a complex topic?
“That’s the nice part about the macroinvertebrates, they’re in the creek, they’re finding these little bugs and they’re squealing,” said Leonard, the latter part of that statement a reference to the children, not the bugs. “My job is easy when it comes to that.”
After the collection stage, the kids get an up-close look through magnifying boxes.
“The station that I think the kids would tell you is their favorite would be the macroinvertebrates where they go down to the stream and collect organisms they find and go back into the education building that’s set up as lab space,” said Molly Bell, a Philomath Elementary third-grade teacher whose class went to Beazell last Tuesday. “They draw pictures and learn about that and it gets them excited.”
The youngsters wore raincoats and ponchos while out in the forest with light rain moving through the region. Students rotated through four stations at the event:
• Water quality and macroinvertebrates at Plunkett Creek.
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• Birds of the forest.
• Wildlife tracks and signs.
• Lichen as air quality indicators and cultural history.
The wildlife tracks and signs station allowed students to get a glimpse of forest ecology while looking at the different animals that live there while hiking the loop trail. At the bird station, students learned about their habitat and got to use binoculars to see what they can find.
The cultural history part of the dual station with lichens exposes the students to the Calapooia culture.
“They talk about what they use from the natural environment around there ... and talk specifically about basket-weaving,” Bell said. “They get that experience of how we use things from nature from food sources to the things that we need.”
After the students return to school, they make some comparisons to drive home what they learned on the field trip. For example, Bell said they will go out and look for lichens on trees at the school and have a discussion.
“It connects very well with what we’re doing in the third grade,” Bells said. “It’s also part of the social studies and learning about Philomath history, learning about the settlers in our area, too.”
FOCUS, an acronym for “Forests, Organisms, Creeks, youU Study,” was created in partnership with Benton County Parks and Natural Areas to provide youth with hands-on science learning and with an outdoor experience.
The five-hour program for third and fourth graders provides insight to diverse wildlife habitats and native biodiversity. Throughout the day, students keep a field journal to record data and observations.
The program serves Title 1 underserved elementary schools, such as Philomath, Blodgett and others. Maggie Livesay, Benton County 4-H outreach leader with the OSU Extension Service, said 256 third and fourth graders went through the program last year.
Of course, such field trips cost money but grants have been paying the bill in recent years.
“What’s really been great is the last couple of years, we have been getting grant money from Oregon State Extension and the Benton Soil and Conservation District,” Bell said. “We haven’t had to pay anything for the field trip the past two years and that’s been awesome.”