Knowledge STEM-ing from nature

Illustration by Diana Ortega

In winter 2018, Camp Colton director Mary Giannola was pulled aside by a man while she was in the checkout line at a hardware store in San Antonio, Texas. Giannola said the man recognized Camp Colton’s name on the shirt she was wearing and reminisced about his experiences at the Flagstaff children’s camp, specifically how special it was for him to attend when he was in sixth grade.

Camp Colton was created in 1971 by sixth grade teachers who wanted to promote an opportunity for students to be curious, discover, and learn about environmental science and nature.

Trevor Hathaway, a science teacher at Mount Elden Middle School, said Camp Colton allows students to become involved in science through demonstrations, observations and experiences that fall under STEM learning, such as lessons involving hands-on application of science, technology, engineering and math.

Students develop their understanding of science and the world around them using technology to observe, measure and calculate data. Giannola said students are able to improve their knowledge of the ecosystem and can create ideas for positive impacts on the environment.

“We are so fortunate to live in Flagstaff and have access to the surrounding forests and lakes,” Giannola said. “What better way to teach our future stewards of the Earth about sustainability, conservation and climate change with rich outdoor, hands-on experiences.”

For Giannola, Camp Colton is a rite of passage in the Flagstaff community. She said attending can be a life-changing experience as it is the first time most students have been away from their family, camped in a tent or eaten food prepared on a 130-year-old wood-burning stove.

Flagstaff native and senior Carly Johnson attended Camp Colton in 2011 with her sixth grade class from Mount Elden Middle School. She said the most memorable parts were the STEM lessons and being away from her family.

Camp Colton is owned and operated by the Flagstaff Unified School District (FUSD). Giannola said the district is one of very few public school districts in the nation that owns its own camp. FUSD works in close partnership with Friends of Camp Colton, commonly known as Friends, a nonprofit that enables students to attend the camp for free.

“Friends of Camp Colton is unique because of the people who are involved on the board,” Giannola said. “They are passionate about every child being given the opportunity to attend and experience nature at its best with regard to a state-of-the-art curriculum, along with an opportunity to develop curiosity and a love for the natural world.”

Ari Wilder, executive director of Friends of Camp Colton, said the focus is to provide exceptional outdoor experiences in nature for local kids, which includes students from Flagstaff and throughout northern Arizona.

Wilder said one of the major goals of the nonprofit was to help get grants and raise money to create a camp that could be more financially solvent and more accessible to kids. A major fundraiser Friends recently completed in February was the GORE-TEX Kahtoola Uphill, a family friendly mountain race that involved about 50 volunteers.

Wilder said Friends finances students that schools identify as being underserved. Giannola said the primary attendees are sixth graders who stay at the camp for four days and three nights. Camp Colton also provides day trips for kids in first and second grade and will be debuting a camp for seventh and eighth graders in June.

A day in the life for a sixth grader at camp includes immersive lessons taught throughout the day and traditional camp activities, such as archery and square dancing, before bed.

“Camp definitely provides a high energy feeling for everyone who attends, as the day is packed full of lessons, informative guest speakers and a good amount of playtime for the students,” Hathaway said. “Camp Colton follows FUSD rules and regulation, which helps promote a positive and safe culture.”

While the sixth grade curriculum has not had major changes since Camp Colton began in 1971, Wilder said she has worked with teachers to revise it, as well as creating new lessons for the first- and second-grade programs. Wilder said they are in the process of writing the summer program curriculum for seventh and eighth graders.

Wilder said that because teachers are experts in knowing what works for students, she has community experts aid in creating a hands-on lesson plan. These experts include scientists from NAU, land managers from the city, the United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy.

“I like to get groups of people together, teachers and local experts, and then really design exciting, wonderful experiences for kids,” Wilder said. “The goal is always to make it as experiential as possible.”

Hathaway worked with a team of teachers from FUSD and staff from Camp Colton to design a new curriculum for a forestry unit. The curriculum brings a hands-on environment of what actual scientists do in the forestry field and connects the activity to other types of jobs that also focus on research.

“We were able to put together lessons on general forest health that not only give students insight into the importance of forest health because of their location, but also the opportunity to use research equipment to represent scientists in their fieldwork,” Hathaway said.

The curriculum revisions are factors of the master plan Camp Colton and Friends have been planning. Giannola said it’s time to start looking toward the next 50 years and how Camp Colton can continue to expand its programs.

A master planning committee that included community leaders, teachers, camp alumni and more leadership groups met and envisioned how to make camp the best it could be educationally and structurally for a memorable experience.

The overarching concept when implementing curriculum into the program was to create a hands-on experience for students that cannot be replicated in the classroom. Hathaway said the chance to learn outside the classroom is different from the traditional setting that has limited resources.

Johnson agreed that Camp Colton offered a memorable experience that challenged the traditional classroom setting with a curriculum that promoted learning through a new perspective.

“I remember expecting it all to be school and class-related, but I learned so much more then I would have just inside the classroom,” Johnson said.

A unique aspect of Camp Colton that brings students closer to nature is being off the grid. Wilder said at the camp, students do not have access to technology like cell phones. Minimal power is used in the lodge for necessities and showers are shorter, if they are used. These practices promote thoughts of water conservation and living sustainably.

One year ago, Giannola said a student wrote on their survey that by not having their phone with them, they conversed with their best friend better. For Giannola, this statement left a touching message about Camp Colton and its values.

“I think this program is very important for younger people in the community,” Johnson said. “Not all families get the opportunity to send their kids to camp and this is a great experience that I believe every kid in middle school should get.”

The memories made at Camp Colton left a lasting impression on students for almost 50 years. Whether it be a recent student attending camp or an alumnus in a Texas hardware store, Camp Colton and Friends has created a lasting community of students, teachers and donors.