SOPE Discovery School provides outdoor experience to students

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McDonald County schools are offering their junior high students a new, hands-on science experience led by Keith Jones, White Rock Junior High teacher. The experience is called the SOPE Discovery School in which a maximum of 15 enrolled students are taken off-site and into the outdoors for a weeklong science lesson. 

This is the second year the SOPE Discover School has been held; previously the program was only offered to eight students. Jones hopes it can grow even further going forward. 

“It is a program that we started last school year with the intention of trying to get students involved in place-based education,” Jones said. “We focused it on using the local streams, woods, that sort of thing—not just as the location of the classes, but that becomes the central part to the lesson, I guess. So, we’re not just doing the same thing that we could be doing in class, but we’re doing it out in the woods. The being outside, being in the woods on the river and that sort of thing … that’s the lesson, is basically where we’re at is the lesson. …” 

Jones explained that there are several goals for immersing students in place-based education. One is for more “advanced” students to have the ability to partake in more “challenging” lessons. Another is that it may act as a sort of “intervention program” for kids who may have a hard time learning in standard classrooms. 

“… And so, it kind of gives them a different way of approaching their education,” Jones said. “They’re still learning the Missouri learning standards—we tie all the lessons back to the same standards that they’re going to be learning in a regular classroom. We try to bring a lot of cross-curricular stuff into it. …” 

Jones said that in the previous year he had more freedom to take the students to meet scientists in person, though this year has looked a bit different due to COVID-19 restrictions. Many of the topics they have discussed in the SOPE Discover School has included, conservation and what it is, primary source research, forestry, watershed, caving, a canoe trip, forest health assessment, and native planting. 

“… Of course, last year without the restrictions I had a lot more freedom to take them to meet actual scientists—which is one my big goals, is I want them to understand that science isn’t something for elite people to do, but it’s actually something that they themselves could do,” Jones said. “… That’s one of the things that I really enjoy about it, is that it is encouraging kids to think about things in a little different direction. …” 

The SOPE Discovery School have proved to benefit students in various ways, as Jones explained. One way that Jones mentioned was that it has helped some of the junior high students “grow out of that immaturity,” as they receive not only science lessons but also leadership and problem-solving. Jones said parents have provided much support toward the program and how their children have benefited. 

“… There really is a lot of research behind place-based education and outdoor education as ways to motivate students who sometimes don’t have that type of motivation, to give kids that may … they just have a hard time fitting in in a regular classroom and this suddenly is their thing,” Jones said. “… One of the things that I noticed last year is that it’s almost like it hit the reset button on a lot of the cliques and the groups that you will find yourself in in school where this suddenly looks nothing like school, and so everybody’s kind of got to figure out how to get along with an entirely different person. And so, they don’t really find themselves pigeon-holed into some of those groups that they would in a school building. We had a pretty small group last year, but I had quite a few parents that messaged me about how much that it helped their kid just to be able to get out and do something different—get out of the classroom. …” 

The SOPE Discovery School is held one week a month for three weeks for each respective grade—September through November for eight graders and January through March for seventh graders. The eighth graders finished their first week of SOPE Discover School last week in which they learned first aid, conducted scientific sketching, went hiking, went on a canoe trip, and more. The students had the opportunity to visit several different locations, including their “home base” outdoor classroom located by the McDonald County District Office. 

“I’ve always loved being outside,” Jones said. “My family, we do a lot of hiking, a lot of camping, that sort of thing. So, the opportunity to be able to take some of those skills and actually use them as part of my job, I couldn’t pass up. … For years, even before this started, I tried to get a lot of those things incorporated into my regular science classes at White Rock. So, to be able to do this—take one week, you know last week we were outside, never once stepped foot inside of the school building … and to me that’s the dream job, is to be able to do that, to be able to take these kids out and watch them grow, watch them develop those skills that they need … And so, I love watching that change … there’s something almost magical about putting kids into nature and watching what happens whenever they start figuring out what’s going on. That could be something as small as a kindergartener learning about butterflies and frogs, all the way up through high school students who are learning about those deeper implications in ecology and what it means. I love being able do it; I’m incredibly grateful that I get that opportunity because, like I said, it’s the dream job.” 

Jones said he has received support from not only parents but also the administration and community, saying “there are some really big cheerleaders for the program in the district.” He mentioned that “native plant people” wanted part of the program as well as a survivalist from Idaho, but Jones couldn’t fit them in due to limited time—though he said he would fit them all in if he could. 

“I have so many people that want to be a part of it that I have to tell very well-intentioned people no simply because there’s just too much, too many people that want to support it,” Jones said. “… Everybody’s excited about it. And I think when they realize that these kids are, they’re still learning Missouri learning standards, but they’re getting a much bigger experience, and that’s been one of the big points to a lot of the parents is the experience that those kids have gotten. …” 

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