School administrator transforms theory into practice with ‘A Day in the Desert’

Students from Sunrise Ridge Intermediate School participate in an activity for the 2017 "A Day in the Desert" in Southern Utah | Photo courtesy of Steve Dunham, Washington County School District, St. George News

FEATURE — Whether for recreation or isolation, many people seek out opportunities to head into the wilderness when they are looking for inspiration or rejuvenation. However, beyond these pursuits, recent studies suggest nature can also potentially impact children by boosting academic achievement, personal development and environmental stewardship.

Students from Sunrise Ridge Intermediate School participate in the 2017 Day in the Desert in Southern Utah | Photo courtesy of Steve Dunham, Washington County School District, St. George News

While hundreds of studies on the effects of nature in academia have shown benefits to students, one study from the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences suggests that even a small dose of being out in nature has astounding effects. To this end, one Washington County school has partnered with Dixie State University to make sure kids get outside – at least once a year.

Similar to the effects the outdoors can have on adults, analysis of the various studies indicates that “nature may promote learning by improving learners’ attention, levels of stress, self-discipline, interest and enjoyment in learning, and physical activity and fitness.”

One co-author of the University of Illinois study said, “If something not only makes a student more attentive, but also less stressed and more interested, then you can see how it could have a large effect on their learning.”

For Sunrise Ridge Intermediate School principal Sandy Ferrell, this idea of nature improving children’s lives is something she has supported for years.

Ferrell told St. George News that she is particularly proud of the school’s partnership with Dixie State University and local land use agencies for “A Day in the Desert.”

Students from Sunrise Ridge Intermediate School participate in A Day in the Desert in Southern Utah, 2017 | Photo courtesy of Steve Dunham, Washington County School District, St. George News

A Day in the Desert, which has been around for five years, allows every student at Sunrise Ridge Intermediate to take part in hands-on activities related to their science curriculum in an outdoor setting.

In previous years, students have learned alongside officials from various land use agencies such as the BLM, Zion National Park, Snow Canyon State Park, Sand Hollow State Park and Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.

Analysis of the myriad studies on the topic say that whether it’s simply learning in a classroom with greenery, working on a school garden or partaking in field trips such as Day in the Desert, incorporating nature in instruction improves academic achievement over traditional instruction.

But more than just the results, Ferrell said students love learning outside and that there has been a great response from them regarding the school’s daylong activity. Besides being able to interact with their peers and adults, she said the annual Day in the Desert allows students to be out in the real world, get their hands dirty and experience sights and smells they wouldn’t get indoors.

“They’re so plugged in,” Ferrell said, pointing out how much time kids spend indoors or “hooked to a screen.”

“I don’t know that one day in the desert is going to change their lives,” she said, “but I do think exposing them to that and introducing that as an option as something to do in your free time is very beneficial to children.”

When she isn’t helping plan the Day in the Desert activities, Ferrell also serves as camp director for the Color Country Natural Resource Camp. The one-week camp has been in existence since 1993 and is another opportunity for students to learn in an outdoor setting.

The camp’s goal is to introduce high school students to natural resource career fields and a variety of outdoor recreation activities. During the week, students will complete investigations with land use agency personnel involving soil, water, vegetation and wildlife, Ferrell said.

“We want them to see what the agency people do on a day at work.”

During this year’s camp, which starts May 28, Ferrell said students will be shocking a stream near the Blue Springs campground in Panguitch Lake to learn about fish by counting those that come up as a result of the procedure, as well as collecting other data.

When attendees aren’t doing in-depth investigations with natural resources, they’re being introduced to different outdoor recreation activities, such as archery, mountain biking, canoeing, outdoor photography and horseback riding. Students also keep field journals during the camp.

Toward the end of the week, students are given a problem that exists involving the outdoor world or natural resources and are tasked with devising a solution to the problem.

Ferrell said the camp has had a profound impact on students.

“A high number of students who have gone into that camp have gone into internships and careers related to natural resources,” she said.

Educators in the area aren’t the only ones hoping to get students out in nature more often. Kristen Comella, park manager for Snow Canyon State Park, said the park has developed programs for classrooms that tie in with Utah’s core curriculum.

We try to promote Snow Canyon as an outdoor classroom,” Comella said.

On average, she said the park sees 4,000-5,000 students annually, adding that the park can accommodate one classroom a day.

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