The New Jersey School of Conservation was happy to welcome the students of Gill St. Bernard’s School once again for a week of environmental activities and classes. This trip represents a long-standing tradition for the fifth- and sixth-graders of GSB. While the fifth-graders were able to experience Stokes State Forest for the first time, the returning sixth-graders were greeted with new challenges to make their second trip just as memorable as the first. After an introduction to the school’s rules and faculty, the students broke up into smaller groups and headed out for their classes.
For the fifth-graders, Stokes can be a new an exciting and wild place. During Survival, the fifth-graders learned the basics of how to cope with an emergency situation. Their first lesson? DON’T PANIC! Panicking can not only cause us to waste precious time and energy, but it can also lead to injury and a worsening of the situation. The trick is to focus on and prioritize our four basic needs: air, shelter, food, and water. Improvisation is also a vital skill in wilderness survival, so students each took turns suggesting unique uses for a simple bandana. Finally, the class learned the basics of shelter building and tried their constructing one with only the resources that nature provides.
In contrast to the tense lessons of Survival, the fifth-graders of GSB got to slow down and relax with a fishing pole during Fish Ecology. During class, the students discussed adaptations that fish have developed over thousands of years to live in their wet environment. They successfully managed to land a few sunfish in Lake Wapalanne and see these scales, fins, and gills up close. After weighing, measuring, and identifying the species of the fish, the fifth-graders released their catches back into the lake and discussed the importance of monitoring global fish populations.
The returning sixth-graders of Gill St. Bernard’s got a closer look at our lake-dwelling neighbors during Boating. The students worked in teams of two or three to pilot their canoes around the south end of Lake Wapalanne. Once they got used to the rhythm of paddling, their canoes were off exploring coves and downed trees around the edge of the lake, searching for the many turtles and frogs that make their home in the lake. Some students even felt confident enough to start races and maneuver around the small islands in the water.
They were given the opportunity to test their confidence further on the school’s climbing wall. The School of Conservation has a policy of “challenge-by-choice,” meaning no student is ever forced to participate if they feel uncomfortable. However, if they chose to put on a climbing harness, the students are expected to give 100% of their effort on the either twenty or thirty-five foot face. The sixth-graders certainly did not shy away from this challenge and instead pushed themselves to continue reaching higher than before.
All of the students also got to strike out on our trails for an interpretive hike. Each hike is unique in that the information provided was fueled by the student’s own curiosity. While an instructor will stop and discuss any wildlife or phenomena they see, the students are encouraged to point out their own subjects. By this form of instruction, we hope to impress upon the students the importance of asking not only what something is, but the why or how some things happen in the world around them. Continued questioning is at the foundation of science, and natural curiosity is something we hope to kindle in our students. While the fifth-graders explored the trails close to the School of Conservation, the sixth-graders headed off-campus to Tillman’s Ravine on the western face of Kittatinny Mountain. This site features unique geological formations carved out by the erosive force of streams and brooks wearing away at the mountain for thousands of years.
Finally, all of the Gill St. Bernard’s School students took part in team-building challenges during Group Initiatives. Each group worked through a series of tasks that are designed to be impossible for one person alone. The students needed to sharpen their communication and cooperation skills to solve each problem and learn to respect their individual abilities. While success in each challenge is rewarding, the students were encouraged to focus on how their teamwork changed throughout all of the challenges.
The educators and staff of the New Jersey School of a Conservation would like to thank the coordinator, Zoey Tuohy, and all the teachers for making this visit possible. We wish the sixth grade class of Somers Point the very best in their future endeavors, and look forward to seeing the fifth-graders again next year for another fantastic trip!
Written by Erin Keller