The best lessons are the simplest at camp |

The best lessons are the simplest at camp

Andrew Pridgen
Appeal Staff Writer

How many paper clips can float in a Dixie cup filled with water?

How can you make a rocket fly using only water pressure?

How can an Oreo be used to represent the plate tectonics theory?

Learning the basic theories of physics, aerodynamics and geology may take an entire school year of poring through textbooks, staging science projects and writing up research reports for most elementary school students.

For the fifth graders of Carson’s Fremont elementary this week – it took four days.

Sierra Nevada Journeys, a Reno-based series of outdoor camps designed to motivate students to “become leaders, scientists and caretakers of our natural world,” hosted a four-day camp at Galilee Episcopal Camp and Conference Center on the East Shore of Lake Tahoe. As the students returned home to Carson, one sentiment rang clear.

“It was like we were on a learning vacation,” said Samantha Lowe, 10.

SNJ program director Bethany Steiner, 27, said it is the hands-on outdoor camp that not only encourages kids who do not normally thrive in the classroom to learn, but gives “real time” lessons textbooks can’t.

“We have a lot of inquisitive learning,” she said. “Instead of explaining to the kids the scientific method – we let them conduct the field experiment. They ask questions and figure out for themselves there’s a certain way to do things.”

Jesse Howard, 25, is one of the camp’s counselors who is known as a “naturalist” in SNJ parlance, Howard taught a group of 15 Fremont students how the Sierra Nevada mountain range staring at them from across the lake came to be, with an Oreo cookie.

“OK, screw off the top like you’re gonna eat it,” Howard said. “Now, slide the top next to the creamy part. The creamy part represents dirt, the top represents one plate.

“Now push the creamy part with the plate. See how it makes a little bump? That’s like a mountain. That’s basically – over millions of years -how the mountain you’re sitting on was formed. Now, isn’t that something?”

The last part of the lesson, the fun part, came when Howard suggested that all the students were giants, who could eat the mountains and the dirt.

“Eating the Oreo – that’s everyone’s favorite part, I think,” Steiner said.

Fremont parents, who came up intermittently during the week to volunteer, along with teachers, who were able to check in on their classes, had equivocal praise for the program.

“It’s beautiful up here and the kids just had a great experience,” said parent Ralph Ahmad, whose daughter Saania, 10, sat nearby in a semi-circle around a campsite learning about aerodynamics using a piece of paper and string. “It’s not just that they learn a lot. It’s that they grow. It’s that I understand how to communicate better with my kids.

“It’s that we’re doing this without TV or video games.”

And what about electronics?

“I don’t miss it at all,” said Chris Burrows, 10. “I’d rather come up here and play games.”

“I forgot about TV, after the first hour,” said Desi Pope, 10. “And I don’t miss my parents, well, not really.”

The seven-person staff ensures the pupils are busy from sun-up until 9 p.m.

Fall camp sessions, with schools from around Northern Nevada, will continue through October. Curriculum is currently being formatted for winter sessions, Steiner said.

“One woman said her answer to ‘No Child Left Behind’ is she wants ‘no child left inside.’ I think that’s our unofficial motto,” she said.

As the students departed Friday at noon, having mastered how to build a geodesic dome, propel a rocket 40-feet in the air using basic laws of gravity and how to skip a rock across the lake at least five times, perhaps one lesson they took away that will last the longest, is the simplest.

“I got to be outdoors with my friends, which is fun,” said Chelsea Phillips, 10. “I wish this time could last longer.”

• Contact reporter Andrew Pridgen at or 881-1219.