Brain Food, Cafeteria Style

As I stood inside the park headquarters building—at precisely 9:00 am—two yellow school busses packed with excited kids rolled through the gate.  Yep, that was the appointed time alright.  It would be the first of several glimpses I would have this day of what a well-oiled machine looks like.  The event today was the Lockhart ISD Fifth Grade Outdoor Laboratory at Lockhart State Park.  Even though the program has been ongoing for 8 years, it would be the first one ever for the current park interpreter, Lauren Millican. . .and for me.  The program is legendary, yet somehow I had never visited.  Today, that was about to change.

Coach is Ready!

Coach is Ready!

As I taped my park permit to the windshield and prepared to join the group, visions of a mob of noisy, unruly kids kicked around in my head. 101 fifth graders?  Really? The battle of San Jacinto was probably calm by comparison when the doors of those busses opened at the loop just off Park Road 10.  As I arrived and parked in the neat line of faculty vehicles around the loop, the kids had already disembarked, were broken into distinct groups, and the busses were gone.  I was only ten minutes into this experience and I was the only one present who didn’t know what he was doing!

Let me set the scene. The road turns off of Park Road 10, meanders by parked RV’s, a clean restroom facility, outdoor camp sites along a constant flowing creek and then loops around a verdant and neatly clipped greenbelt, punctuated by several grand old post oaks.  This inner circle was mowed and manicured like the infield at Yankee Stadium, surrounded by a curtain of fresh spring growth.  Four groups of 5th graders were dutifully waiting by designated picnic tables, interspersed with various adults, ice coolers, easels, cardboard boxes and sundry educational props.  It was a flawless spring day yet the whole of the majestic woods belonged to just these kids. Suddenly things began to happen, it was like opening the gates to a carnival: instructors addressed their groups, facilitators took their positions and observers moved closer. Lauren checked her clipboard like a coach checking her starting lineup one last time.

With camera in tow, I visited each of four educational stations.

Oh Deer!

The first stop was titled “Oh Deer,” a word play on a game that teaches the major factors determining deer population in the wild.  Students were selected to be deer, food

Oh Deer!!!

Oh Deer!!!

water, shelter or space—all but the “deer” were supplied with an identification sign. The instructor briefly explained the rules: elements of “habitat” were to disperse on command, keeping their signs hidden from view until told to reveal. The deer were required to declare in advance the object of their search. Deer were released by shouting, “Oh Deer,” and they spread out like a solidly hit rack of billiard balls, foraging for their needs.  Once each deer found their element of habitat, both parties returned to the instructor, who then altered the environment by creating two “baby deer” for each successful first generation deer.

A record of the deer population was made on a line graph before the cycle began again.  As the deer population increased against decreasing habitat, eventually the kids ran out of habitat (if they couldn’t find what they were looking for, the deer were declared “dead” and had to sit out).  The graph told the story of carrying capacity, increasing population, peak and decline better than any textbook could—and the kids got to blow off some latent energy in the process!

What’s Your Niche?

I next visited the ecosystem of the pond.  After a short discussion around picnic tables everyone moved to “the pond,” a piece of cut-out cardboard surrounded by a blue plastic ground cloth. Each student selected a hand paddle with a picture of a pond creature on one side, and information about that critter on the reverse.  In sequence, each child then stood and read to the group about the crayfish, dragonfly, great blue heron, bullfrog, or whatever animal they represented.  What happened next was

Pond Creatures

Pond Creatures

learning in action.

A child representing, say, a bullfrog, was selected to stand up and state what his or her animal would likely feed on.  Others were allowed to help, as needed.  It was somewhat surprising that a number of kids had no clue who was predator and who was prey.  As food was identified, and subsequently eaten, the population of the pond understandably declined.  This was not only an opportunity to learn who the top predator was, but also the delicate interdependency of the ecosystem.  After discussing the nuances, the kids were sent back to their respective picnic tables to fill out their workbooks by matching pond animals with their unique niche in the ecosystem.

Is Your Water Clean?

This was the most academically challenging station and a telling demonstration of excellent teaching skills.  Liz Agular was the group leader.  She was the Training Committee Chair for the Guadalupe Chapter and an employee of the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority.  First item of business

Where Does Your Drinking Water Come From?

Where Does Your Drinking Water Come From?

was to capture flowing water from nearby Clear Creek.  Water and kids go together like lock and key.  After securing a bucket full of creek water, the group settled around their picnic tables for a lesson on testing and understanding water purity.  There was a period of lecture, followed by natural lab work.  As attention spans wore thin, Liz cried out, “If you can hear me, clap your hands!” This had to be repeated for a time, but in short order the entire group was clapping their hands and all eyes were glued on Liz, like she was some type of snake charmer.

After learning how water gets into their household taps via watersheds, Clear Creek, the San Marcos River and pipeline to the water treatment facility, the chemistry of water purity was the crux of the exercise.  Armed with knowledge of such concepts as parts-per-million and percent concentration each young scientist was given a chemical tablet to drop in their test vial, which changed the color of the sample. They were looking for dissolved oxygen. With these tools, water temperature and water quality was ascertained by comparing the color of the treated water sample against a workbook chart.  In the end, judgement was required, but with ample help from proctors, each child eventually recorded the quality of their sample. I probably learned more than the students—a fascinating and fun exercise!

Flora Galore

Teamwork between Hays County chapter and Lost Pines chapter was on display here.  It was a combination classroom/field exercise, focused on plant identification.

You're Supposed to Be Looking For Plants!

You’re Supposed to Be Looking For Plants!

Discussion centered on the five stages of the plant life cycle (seed, germination, maturation, fertilization and seed dispersal).  In the process, how seeds draw energy from stored nutrients was presented and ideas were shared about how seeds are dispersed.  Even at this basic level, the miracle of life came through clearly—and the kids embraced it.

The kids used deductive reasoning skills, first identifying the leaf shape, then leaf arrangement and comparing against a neat little photo album of basic native plants—a picture on one side, an explanation on the back.  After the lecture, the teams were taken on a hike into the wilderness that surrounded them.  The goal:  to stop at five plants marked by little plastic numbered flags and, using their skills and photo guidebook, identify each one.  I followed a group of all girls— bling-splattered designer jeans, extravagant tee-shirts and expensive athletic footwear.  It was a stylish coven of little heart-breakers! While the girls completed their exercise, it was not without a generous amount of cliquish horseplay and social posturing. Girls will be girls.  One could observe as much about life cycles watching these little vamps as from studying native plants.  In the end, each girl nailed all five plants.

Fresh Off The Press

Fresh Off The Press

I consider Lockhart State Park the best kept secret in TPWD.  It’s beautiful, conveniently laid out and has all the amenities patrons want. The Lockhart ISD 5th Grade Outdoor Laboratory is icing on the cake. This program serves four participating area schools—today was Plum Creek Elementary’s turn. So this means there are four weeks in the spring and four weeks in the fall when the experience is offered.  Lauren changes the curriculum each season and publishes supporting workbooks which are available to all TPWD agencies.  Despite the cross-fertilization of Master Naturalist participation and the high level of organization that was apparent, new volunteers are critical.  If any program matches our mission to help educate others about natural resources and conservation, this is it. Make an effort to get involved.  Talk with Jim Estes, Rick Johnson, Louise Ridlon, Susie Ward, Anna Stalcup or Walt Elson. Watch for Meetup announcements in the fall—step up and volunteer.  Start by assisting experienced instructors and, when you are ready, take your turn in the long line of naturalists who make a difference in the lives of area kids.  There are few educational nature programs executed this well.

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