Sixth-graders from Sisters Middle School descended on the Pine Meadow Ranch Center for Arts & Agriculture (PMRCAA) May 18 and 19 for outdoor school. This was a first for both The Roundhouse Foundation and the teachers and students, as the outdoor school had previously been held at a venue which hosts kids for overnight stays.

With uncertainty over COVID prevalence and protocols, Sisters Middle School Science Teacher Melissa Stolasz pivoted to a day-camp model for 2022, and was actively looking for a new location when Ana Varas, arts project coordinator for PMRCAA, reached out to Stolasz about seeing her fiddle club. Stolasz was then invited to visit PMRCAA, and a match was found for the outdoor-school location.

Melanie Petterson, director of The Roundhouse Foundation operations, said, “We seek any and all opportunities to help create lifelong learners who share a love of community, arts, and their beautiful surroundings. Therefore, it was an absolute delight for us to host the next generation of youth for Outdoor School at Pine Meadow Ranch. These are Sisters kids, and we are part of their village.”

During the two days, sixth-graders were put into eight groups of twelve students, each with its own leader. Seven of the groups were at PMRCAA, doing activities centered around music, art, and team building, while one group at a time ventured offsite on a walking field trip to nearby Whychus Creek for hands-on scientific learning.

Stolasz used the natural area around Whychus Creek to further students’ learning about groundwater and riverbeds, something they have studied in the classroom. One of her goals for the field trip was for students to use their observation skills to identify abandoned stream beds.

Sixth-grader Bjorn Johnson said, “The Whychus Creek starts in the mountains and is made from snow melting down, making the water flow cold and clear. The flow can divide up into many little – or one big – stream, depending on how much snowmelt there is. We discovered dried creeks by seeing how the rocks are smooth and there is less dirt or sediment left behind.”

An overarching goal of the outdoor school was also to get kids out of their comfort zones and into their stretch zones, said Stolasz. Intermittent times of cold and adverse weather made students aware of their place in nature and created conversations about how our ancestors survived and thrived without modern comforts.

Students also connected to nature through tree sniffing (ponderosa pines can often smell deliciously like vanilla), log crossing, and geocaching (in which participants use navigational techniques to find hidden containers called “geocaches” at specific locations marked by coordinates).

“Something new and interesting that I learned at Outdoor School was geocaching,” said Johnson. “We searched for the geocache on a GPS, then had to locate it on the map. We searched through a log and finally found the box and got some cool items. We added items for others to find in the future, too.”

The size and diversity of PMRCAA allowed groups to spread out for various arts and music activities, as well as for team-building. Students enjoyed interacting with the motion-activated, light-and-sound art piece “Light Chimes,” created by the Portland and Amsterdam-based artist team Sticky Co., installed in the ranch’s historic, century-old round barn. Stolasz said, “When you give them that kind of canvas, they are going to come up with something amazing. I’m so grateful because it turned out to be the perfect spot for this year,” she said.

Student Willa Hoyt said, “I loved ODS because it was a learning experience that wasn’t in a classroom. We practiced skills and lessons on creating, open-mind thinking, art, and more. A personal favorite was art with Ms. Fuentes. Instead of being in her classroom maybe working on clay, or following step-by-step drawing videos, we had the opportunity to be open and sketch whatever we saw or thought out in our very own ODS journals.”

Varas said the trip exemplified foundation goals.

“Our work is grounded in a strong sense of place and community,” she said. “Programs like the outdoor school are an opportunity for students to learn valuable lessons outside the classroom. Partnering with programs like this allows us to create a positive impact by encouraging creative problem solving, innovative thinking, and cultivating community.”