“It’s been fun,” Salter said. “We’ve been doing activities (like) major hikes and we’ve learned about how predators camouflage themselves.”
She and her classmates have been spending the week at the Great Basin Outdoor School, located at Camp Galilee on the east short of Lake Tahoe. The excursion is an opportunity to learn about science away from the confines of a classroom and in the outdoors where students can get a hands-on approach to learning about the water cycle and wildlife.
Great Basin opens its campsite to students for a four-day program in the spring and fall. Beasley sent 70 of its sixth graders in the last two weeks to the school.
On Thursday, students received good fortune from Mother Nature and boarded a research vessel, the Prophet, to travel more than a mile off of the shores of Zephyr Cove to learn about Tahoe’s water quality, temperature and the microscopic life forms that dwell in its depths.
Students were transported by Captain John Shearer, who has taught as a water ski instructor at Lake Tahoe for 20 years before becoming a captain. Fourteen years ago, he said, the nonprofit Marine Research and Education was formed to give local students an opportunity to learn about the lake.
“They didn’t have enough money to come out on Lake Tahoe, so we thought we would teach kids what a great freshwater resource and what a precious resource we have,” Shearer said. “(We do this) just to show them exactly what we have and the basics of conserving and taking care of our water.”
Like other groups, students Thursday collected data as they took tests to determine water temperature and conductivity, or amount of salt to determine how much electricity the water is creating. Students rotated between Shearer and Marine Research program manager Kathy Campion for various tests. They watched with interest as Shearer released a Secchi disk, a white plate attached to a wire, into the water to determine clarity. Once the Secchi disk was no longer visible to the eye, Shearer would stop and measure the depth.
For most Beasley students Thursday, that depth was 41 feet, indicating the water was not very clear.
“(The data) stay fairly consistent (from year to year),” Shearer said. “And, of course, in lower snow years, you’re going to have better quality of water because there’s less runoff. This year, we had 125 percent of a normal snow year, so 41 (feet) is not that great. Some years, I’ve seen depths of clarity up to 74 feet and that’s in the fall. You always have clearer water in fall than you have in the spring.”
Shearer also pulled a small sample of water and displayed a few drops under a microscope to reveal microscopic zooplankton and talked about their physiology and the food chain in the lake.
In addition to getting on the boat at Zephyr Cove, students started off their morning singing a song called “Water Cycle Boogie” complete with hand motions and dancing.
Great Basin program coordinator Kim Felton said the outdoor school is a chance for students who don’t have opportunities to learn in an outdoor setting to get away from the classroom.
“Some just get the experience of getting away from home,” she said. “Some get away from their electronics — TV, their cell phones, video games. They don’t think they’re getting away but they are. … It’s getting back to nature.”
Kristin Setty, a sixth grade math teacher at Beasley, organized the trip.
“They are loving it,” she said of her students. “It’s definitely something every school should do. It’s wonderful, even for them just to have the independence especially as they’re going from sixth grade to middle school … as we let them sit back and be on their own.”
The cost was $195 per student and families paid for it on their own, excluding a handful of students who were able to get scholarships to cover the cost.
Setty said students were well-prepared academically for the lessons they received on Thursday’s vessel outing on the lake.
“They knew a lot coming in,” she said.
The students’ outing also included several parents, who helped teachers with the supervision of students by inviting them to come up for the day or even spend the night if they were able. It gave them a chance to see the positive impacts the outdoor education was having on their kids.
Doug McPartland, father of 11-year-old Beasley student Kevin McPartland, joined the students and teachers overnight and also sailed with the kids, chiming in with an occasional question or answer when the youngsters were quiet.
“I think Kevin’s having a great experience,” he said. “I’m learning we have very dedicated teachers who are willing to take four days out of their week and come up here and spend around the clock with the kids. It’s certainly above and beyond the call of a teacher, so I applaud them doing this for the kids.”