It’s just after noon, and the students in Dawn Wilcox’s second-grade class at Campbell STEM Elementary are excited.
They’re about to go outside to play. Not for recess, but for science.
Just minutes earlier, Macey Hoffman, a senior Outdoor Studies major at Alaska Pacific University, helped students assemble the toolkits they’ll use in their outdoor classroom at Wolverine Park to gather information throughout the school year.
As they sat cross-legged on the carpet, their excitement grew. One by one, Hoffman passed out the educational instruments each student will use to observe the outdoors: A dry erase observation sheet, colored pencils, a Rite in the Rain notebook, a bandana, binoculars, tweezers, a bug container, field guides to promote hands-on learning, and an orange and blue backpack to keep it all organized and ready on the go.
The goal for Huffman’s project is two-fold: Cultivate each student’s interest in outdoor education and leave behind a lasting impact on her community.
Her project, titled “Nature Activity Backpacks: Placing value on learning outside,” focuses on the impactful of outdoor education on children.
“Preparing each second grader with their [own] backpack gives them a passport to the outdoor world,” Hoffman said of her project. “The nature activity backpacks will help spark a love of nature in students, moving them into healthier lifestyles, building a sense of stewardship to protect and conserve our natural world.”
Hoffman’s “ah ha” moment in determining the scope of her project occurred while skimming through the book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
“There was one sentence about the day activity packs you could rent in National Parks, and the idea came to me,” Hoffman said. “How cool would it be if a classroom has a set of tools for each student to easily grab to go learn outside?”
Hoffman coordinated with various organizations to lift her project off the ground including the Anchorage Parks Foundation, the National Parks and the Forest Service.
One of Hoffman’s most significant challenges was funding. She circulated a donation letter to local businesses before receiving donations from Moose’s Tooth and Office Depot. The remaining balance was achieved through a GoFundMe page.
“It was so encourage to see people wanting to support kids and outdoor education,” Hoffman said.
After passing out the equipment, Hoffman and the students headed outside for their first lesson. While sitting on fallen tree trunks and big rocks, the students practiced writing down what they heard, saw, smelled, and felt.
Hoffman will continually follow up with the class, observing the packs in use for her project report. The students will repeat the survey they took in September to see if they’ve noticed changes in their relationship with the outdoors.
Hoffman hopes Ms. Wilcox’s next batch of second graders can use the backpacks.
“If the school sees it has been a great program for her classroom, I would love more classrooms to receive this tool,” Hoffman said.
Ms. Wilcox echoed that sentiment, saying she hopes to see the project replicated in schools across the state.
“It has wild appeal for all grade levels and allows students to act as practicing professions interacting with the natural world,” Wilcox said. “I firmly believe that children need lots more time outside and these backpacks are making that possible for my fortunate second graders.”