Students learn STEM curriculum outdoors at WVU’s Science Adventure School

Monongalia and Preston

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Sixth graders in West Virginia now have an amazing opportunity to learn critical skills about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) while having fun thanks to the West Virginia University Science Adventure School (SAS).

The school is a 4-day, 3-night program at Summit Bechtel Reserve, which is offered at the beginning of a student’s sixth-grade year that combines adventures in the outdoors with hands-on STEM and environmental science learning. Its director, Ali Jeney, said the idea for the school was first introduced in 2016, and by 2018, a two-week pilot program was underway. In 2019, SAS had its first full-scale program, and now, it’s back for a second year after 2020 was canceled because of COVID-19.

Students participating in SAS activity (WVU Photo)

“The program is designed specifically for sixth-grade students in West Virginia,” Jeney said. “The curriculum is designed for, you know, that age level. It’s designed as a transition program, and it’s designed to really support sixth-grade students as they enter this new world of responsibility, building friendships, building communities in their schools and really building relationships even with the adults in their schools as well. It’s for those who are just kicking off sixth grade and are excited about learning and excited about their classmates, excited to live and thrive in West Virginia, all of those things.”

Jeney said the weekly program runs from Tuesday to Friday, meaning it’s “an overnight school or an overnight camp”. Students arrive Tuesday morning and depart Friday afternoon. Then the cycle repeats the following week. So far, more than 600 students have attended SAS.

In those four days, while they are at the school, Jeney said, it’s “jam-packed full” of three main areas of curriculum. Curriculum area number one is what SAS calls “Science Behind the Sport”.

It’s run by Andrew Hoover who used to play football at Bridgeport Highschool. Jeney described him as “an amazing individual” who plays a critical role in the school.

“The idea with the ‘Science Behind Sport’ curriculum is that we’re teaching science basics and science principles along with outdoor adventure sports,” Jeney said. “So, we may take students rock climbing and during that lesson, they’re going to learn a little bit about anatomy and how your body works and how we can really maximize performance just with the knowledge of anatomy.”

Students taking part in a rock climbing course as part of SAS (WVU Photo)

It’s all about learning the science curriculum and putting it directly into practice, Jeney added.

The second area of the curriculum is “Environmental Education”.

It is focused on helping students understand the natural world around them. 

“It’s based in inquiry and getting students excited to ask questions and excited about the role that they see, the animals, of course — that’s always a favorite — the wetlands, how forest ecosystems work,” Jeney said. “Pretty much looking around and just really, building a relationship with West Virginia and, you know, where they’re from.”

The third pillar of the curriculum is what SAS calls “Positive Youth Development” or “experiential education”, Jeney said.

It’s where the students get to think about how they handle challenges.

“Or, building really quality friendships and what does it look like to face a failure and is that okay,” Jeney said. “It’s absolutely okay, and failures are actually really great. And, they’re essential to learning and to getting better at things, so that positive youth development piece is kind of your fireside chat discussion. We take the Science Behind the Sports, we take Environmental Ed., we take the Positive Youth Development and it fills up these 4 days of SAS from morning till night, of course. And so, that’s what they’re busy doing all week with us.”

SAS runs this program during its “main season” at Summit Bechtel Reserve from the end of August through the beginning of October.

Students learning about STEM topics (WVU Photo)

This is the final week at Summit Bechtel, but not the end of the road for the year.

“We are running a brand new pilot at the Outdoor Education Center near Morgantown,” Jeney said. “So essentially, what’s going to happen is we’re going to have a transition week next week. We’re going to pick up our staff, we’re going to pick up our equipment, we’re headed north. And we’re going to run two more weeks of programming up for our friends in the northern part of the state.”

While this program is targeted toward sixth-graders in Monongalia and Preston Counties, Jeney said all West Virginia sixth-graders are welcome.

Students will experience the same kind of STEM learning environment, but near Cooper’s Rock State Forest. It will feature activities such as a high-ropes course, rock climbing and an odyssey course.

To find out more, Jeney said to email SAS@mail.wvu.edu.

“Drop a line and say, ‘hey, I want to bring my class’ and we will respond and try to get them in because we know this is coming up quickly,” Jeney said.

She said they want to hear from sixth-grade teachers, but not only teachers. 

“They don’t have to be science teachers,” Jeney said. “It can be principals or superintendents. We’ve been in contact with folks, but we do still have some spots available and we would love to fill them with local kids.”

There’s a lot of opportunity in outdoor recreation in West Virginia, but nobody is paying attention to that as a pathway forward. That’s why, Jeney said, SAS is so important.

The reason that the school exists is to be an answer, to get students in a place where they can really build a positive community with their class and with their teachers, Jeney said.

Students canoeing as art of SAS activity (WVU Photo)

“We know that this is getting as issues such as bullying,” she said. “As you know, there are mental health issues that are coming up because there’s not a trusted adult for these students and this program is getting at that. We’re trying to build that pride in the state get them excited about the outdoor recreation opportunities, which builds confidence in these students. It gets them excited to be outside and maybe first of all have a better and healthier lifestyle. And second of all, maybe consider that outdoor economics is a viable pathway forward for them later in life. We want to get them excited about science.”

Jeney continued.

“We want students to have the confidence to be able to say ‘hey, you know, a scientist doesn’t always wear a lab coat and carry a flask, I can really care about nature and the environment, have a great career as a scientist and I can do that here in West Virginia’. We want to create recreational opportunities so there are other things for kids to do after school than to get into trouble. There’s a lot with this program that we really know it’s a drop in the bucket. But it’s a start and that’s why we get so excited about it.”

In just the second full year alone, Jeney said SAS is seeing results.

Teachers, she said, are sending the school unsolicited feedback about how much the program has positively impacted their students.

“The kids are going to class, they’re asking more and better questions,” Jeney said. “I mean, we’re seeing these things. These kids leave Science Adventure School with a new sense of value and worth, and I’m telling you like, that’s what keeps us going. We know we have a long road ahead, but I’m telling you we know this is working.”

Learn more about Science Adventure School

Learn more about the curriculum, Science Behind the Sport

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