WESTON, W.Va. (WBOY) – A place to explore outdoor skills and fall in love with science may sound too good to be true, but this is exactly what Science Adventure School (SAS) is doing for middle schoolers across West Virginia. The free program offers the opportunity for sixth grade students to participate in sports and learn about the science behind them.

SAS has four locations across the state: Summit Bechtel Reserve, WVU Outdoor Education center, Jackson’s Mill 4-H Camp and Heritage Farms School. With the two northern and southern locations, the program has been able to serve 3,143 students since it started in 2018.

The program started as a pilot, taking inspiration from Adventure West Virginia as well as similar science programs across the country. SAS allows students to start making connections, build their independence and be curious.

“We bring sixth graders out into the forests into the fields and they come with their classmates. We’re teaching them science and they’re getting a chance to do outdoor activities,” said Program Coordinator, Annie Harmon. “So we just want to give the kids the tools they need to feel good about themselves confident empowered, able to handle failure and able to just handle the challenges of being a person and being a middle schooler in particular,” Harmon said.

All sixth grade students are welcomed, this includes those who are homeschooled or go to public, private or charter schools. A large part of the program is to build the students’ confidence, starting with building up from failure.

BMX Biking instructor, Claire Wayne has been part of the program for a few seasons and she said her purpose is to build students up, not break them down and then build from there.

“When somebody falls down we first make sure they’re okay, so you can get the thumbs up tap your helmet and then we do a ‘yay failure! Whoooooo!’ and we hoot and we holler and we celebrate because isn’t it such a wonderful thing that we can get back up after we fall and that we can learn something new and that we can keep going.”

Activities offered are mostly consistent throughout the four locations, with some variations. The Morgantown location offers zip-lining as well as actual rock climbing. Schools choose where to send students, with their goal being to send students far enough so they are out of their comfort zone and can go grow.

One central part of the program Jeney said is that it is overnight so students learn to be independent from their parents and are as immersed in the experience as possible. This incudes handing in their phones at the beginning of the week, where they have access to them the night’s they call back home. Having no phones allows for the students to become one with their surroundings and better interact with their peers.

The West Virginia centered program runs from mid-August until the last week of October. In order to participate, schools must reach out to SAS directly to coordinate. The program is free to students, but SAS said schools pay a “small fee” per student to attend. Some schools choose for their students to fill out an application in order to be considered, other schools bring all their students.

The director of the program, Ali Jeney, said 2023 was the first year that Marion County sent students, and she said the county’s intention was for every one of its 500 sixth graders to attend. So far this year, 223 were able to participate.

Jeney said SAS will be holding a homeschool-only cohort next fall. Currently, homeschool students join the larger schools, but having a homeschool only cohort will allow students to interact with others who have similar backgrounds and will have more in common. If you are interested in having your homeschool group attend, you can send an email to SAS@mail.wvu.edu.

Including the 2018 pilot’s 30 students, SAS has served 3,143 students, and they hope to keep growing. The goal according to Jeney, is to be available to all sixth grade students in West Virginia. The max amount of students for a week at the Jackson’s Mill location is 90 students. At the Morgantown location it’s 60. At the Summit Bechtel Reserve it’s 240 and at the Heritage Farm is 30 students.

They group has even made one exception for an out-of-state student from North Carolina. Jeney said the priority group they serve are West Virginian students, but if there are cancellations or schools with less students than anticipated, others who have reached out to the program that may not typically qualify will be able to attend. However, those vacancies also allow for day-only trips.