Silverthorne Elementary program combines STEM with outdoor education
Silverthorne Elementary School’s Outdoor Education Program is a way for students to learn about science while engaging with the many outdoor resources Summit County has to offer.
Principal Louise Wacaser said the program began as a nontraditional version of physical education classes with the goal of exposing all kids from kindergarten through fifth grade to the county’s outdoor activities, especially since many students don’t have the resources to access it all. Students engage in activities including biking, ice skating, hiking, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, swimming, sledding and more.
“It gives them an opportunity to be outside and learn new skills and enjoy Summit County at school,” Wacaser said of the Outdoor Education Program. “Our kids are very passionate about it. They’ve built some good skills around it like working together (and) solving problems, and I always like that they get to try new things that they’ve never had the opportunity to try before.”
Tyler Bunnelle, the school’s physical education teacher, has been instrumental in creating the program. He said he started hearing from kids that they were not getting much time outside, and he felt a duty to help expose them to what Summit County has to offer. It all started with taking students to nearby ponds in the winter to skate.
Summit School District spokesperson Andrea Ridder said in an email that this year students are studying forces of motion through biking and experimenting with Hot Wheels tracks to discover what impacts movement. Students started to design and build a pump track behind the school this year.
“Pedaling is usually our force of motion with a bicycle,” Bunnelle said. “In this case, we’re trying to harness that gravity (and) harness that momentum by pushing and pulling on our bike over these rollers and berms and just keep that momentum and even increase that momentum over time.”
On Thursday, Sept. 30, the school will host its annual Bear Strong Bike Fest for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. The event will kick off at 9 a.m. with a ribbon cutting to unveil the pump track, and it will serve as both a fundraiser for the Outdoor Education Program as well as a chance to showcase what students are learning. The school is currently fundraising to build an indoor ropes course and rock climbing wall in the school gym.
“This is a culminating event for our biking and forces in motion unit where we hope to unveil our bike dirt/pump track that the kids have designed and created harnessing gravity to maintain momentum around this track,” Ridder said in an email.
There was no bike festival last year, and this year’s event is still a bit scaled back from what it used to be, but district staff said they’re happy to be holding the event at all.
The curriculum for the Outdoor Education Program is based on the Colorado Academic Standards, meaning every aspect is connected to an educational component. The school rotates through a three-week cycle on Wednesdays where students in third, fourth or fifth grades will participate in an outdoor activity in the mornings, and in the afternoons students in kindergarten, first or second grades do the same.
Students then go back into the Discovery Lab to learn more about the activity they participated in. Ridder said while kids are hiking they observe different types of environments that impact where trees grow, or they study snow science and discover where water comes from while cross-country skiing.
“This year we’re coming in strong with a really good focus and, basically, we are studying forces of motion in our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lab, which is then connected to biking,” Bunnelle said. “With this pump track, we’re focusing in on those forces of motion and building what these kids have designed.”
The program is also incorporated into Silverthorne Elementary’s Dual Language Program, so both Bunnelle and Spanish-speaking physical education teacher Alejandro Aznar participate in the weekly outdoor activities.
Bunnelle said the pump track is still a work in progress, so it has the potential to become a multiyear project where kids can learn about the science of the pump track while getting to enjoy it at the same time. He said, in his experience, all of the kids get super into it, too.
The school also partnered with Keystone Science School this year to provide an additional instructor for the program.
“The idea was dreamed up to have somebody facilitate and support the outdoor education for a part of the day and support the after-school program for the other part of the day, so we essentially made a full-time job out of two part-time jobs,” Keystone Science School spokesperson Dave Miller said. “It was kind of a no-brainer for us to be involved and see what kind of funding we could find to support the program. … It’s a huge opportunity for the Silverthorne Elementary School just to really capitalize on our backyard.”