Answering Questions - Field Trips at Tryon Creek

Story and pictures by Tim LaBarge

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Stephanie Wagner has had many roles with Friends of Tryon Creek. She’s been the Education Director, she’s been the Executive Director and she serves on the board of directors. But on this day, she’s doing what she loves most: leading students through the woods, opening their minds to science.

The theme of the day is adaptable insects. The middle school students will be looking at tiny crawling critters in different habitats, gathering data and answering their own questions. They will discuss their shapes and colors and consider how these adaptations help them survive.

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The first question could have derailed that theme and sent the students on a different adventure: “What birds are here in the park?” a boy asks. Stephanie calmly replies that more than fifty species pass through the park. Almost on cue, a northern pygmy owl toots its series of monotone beats and the kids are suddenly excited about birds. But Stephanie shifts them back to the day’s subject by asking, “What do most birds eat?” (insects!)

Over the next two hours, the students shake ferns, western red cedars and Indian Plums. They catch the morning’s raindrops, a baby slug and a few spiders. When a black and brown inchworm falls onto their shake sheet, three girls are elated. “We thought it was a stick, but then it moved!” one exclaims.

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The questions keep coming. They ask about dogs, cats, ravens and coyotes. The students are asked to discover what’s making miniature piles of sticks and leaves along the trail (worms!). Stephanie points out rows of little holes in a large cedar that a sapsucker makes to catch its meals (insects!) and they all pause to listen to a pileated woodpecker on its quest to find lunch (more insects!).

Walking along the Old Main Trail, one boy tries to crack up his buddy. “Would you eat a banana peel?” he asks. Stephanie hears the question and turns the ‘would you eat’ silliness into science. She suggests he get a banana peel and place it outside in a safe spot and observe what really will eat a banana peel. “Do an experiment,” she says. “It will be your very own experiment. Check on it each day and watch what happens.”

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Erin Cathcart, Field Trip Coordinator for Friends of Tryon Creek has heard a lot of interesting questions while listening to students. “I’ve gotten ‘Do tigers live here?’ a few times,” she says. “And I know I need to address the question and acknowledge it. But I also know I need to stay focused and stay on the theme. So I turn it back to the big question and get them thinking so ideas are reinforced.”

Flipping the tiger question back to the kids gives them a chance to use the science they’ve learned along with expressing their creativity. What would tigers need to survive in the forest here? How might they adapt to this place?

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The Friends’ field trip program reaches about 4,500 children and zero tigers each year with this approach to science and nature. The students come to the park from 21 school districts in the region. The program serves a diverse mix of students from the region including schools from the Portland, Vancouver, Gresham-Barlow and Salem-Keizer school districts.

Erin enjoys trying to find a balance between the science part and feeling part of the field trip. “I hope kids can leave having had a fun experience learning and feel comfortable and empowered in the forest,” she says. “Those things need to go hand-in-hand in order for us to be a success.”

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Erin talks to teachers and helps coordinate the plan and curriculum, but there are about 50 volunteers who lead the groups of students along the trails of the park. Some are retired and some are still working. They are research biologists, school teachers, nurses and business people. They bring a wide range of experience and teaching styles to the trips. Despite that variety in approach, the goal is consistent: To promote critical thinking, develop problem solving skills, and foster positive relationships with the natural world.
“We want the field trip to be relevant to Tryon, but really, we hope the students go back to their neighborhoods and think about the nature they see each day,” Erin says.

Watching a child go through a metamorphosis during a field trip confirms the importance of the program for Erin. “Sometimes you get a student who is hesitant about nature at first and then two hours later they’re confident and enthusiastic and want to spend the rest of the day in the woods,” she says. “It really speaks to how transformative these sorts of experiences can be.”

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That confidence might come from touching a mole pelt or maybe from seeing a live animal as common, yet complicated, as a banana slug. If the kids do and see these things together, they are more likely to remember the experience for a long time. “The real outcomes are on the grander scale,” Erin says. “The ultimate good has more to do with community building and people’s relationship with nature.”