- Associated Press - Sunday, June 8, 2014

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) - A little ways past Lafayette High School and just outside of town is the Methodist Camp and Retreat Center known by most people as Camp Lake Stephens - or CLS, as many fondly refer to it.

Amid the camp’s cabins, blossoming flowers and refreshing lakes can be found something more than the natural beauty of the popular retreat - educational opportunities.

Reed Jordan, the camp’s environmental education naturalist, and Audrey Sollie, education director, are in charge of a new program designed specifically for students that combines classroom instruction with and real-life learning. The program is essentially an outdoor field trip to which teachers can bring their students and some of the students’ parents.

“The idea was for this to be a place where schools could fill in the gap where the classroom can’t put in hands-on learning,” Jordan said. “There’s a lot of testing emphasized in today’s schools, and it’s better for the kids to have something they can touch and something that they can draw empathy for, so we developed this program that would essentially fill that niche.”

Jordan, who has a degree in wildlife and fisheries from Mississippi State University, and Sollie, who has a license to teach biology, spend their days - and some nights - in a world of youth-filled nature activities. They offer a variety of lessons to choose from, including terrestrial ecosystems, geology and soil studies, garden and conservation studies.

Each outdoor learning experience coincides with a particular lesson plan being taught in the classroom.

“This really is an extension of the classroom,” Sollie said. “That is the mentality that we are trying to create. We don’t want teachers to think that this will just be a day outside and show-and-tell- type stuff. Kids actually get to study a tree and other things.”

Teachers interested in bringing one of their classes to this outdoor school may choose a without-lunch or with-lunch option, in which the latter provides a meal for their students and adults on the trip. This choice turns the dining hall into a classroom itself.

For instance, the lunch itself can provide an educational opportunity.

“We try to compost and recycle as much as humanly possible, and we go through all the parts of where your food comes from and why it’s important to be aware of that and how your decisions affect everything else,” Jordan said.

Teachers can also choose two or three options of learning activities for the students.

The camp also offers a challenge course for the students.

“We like to offer these options for students as well because obviously we want the children to learn, but we also want them to grow together while being informed,” Sollie said. “With activities such as the high- and low-rope course, the kids get to have teambuilding exercises.”

The camp also offers an overnight experience in which multiple activities are offered.

Once the students and teachers have completed the program, the group offers a post-trip visit to follow up on the knowledge gained.

“Keeping the connection with the people and the kids may be the best asset and may be the most valuable option that we offer,” Jordan said. “We really put an emphasis on relationships.”

The pair has also partnered with Good Food for Oxford Schools and visits Della Davidson Elementary School once a week to discuss the new learning garden that the children have planted.

“With the help of Camp Lake Stephens, the students were excited about learning about the garden and actually getting their hands ‘dirty’ in the garden,” Della Davidson Insight teacher Laurie Ellis said.

“Reed and Audrey have not only taught garden skills but teamwork skills to the students. I truly believe that without Reed and Audrey, the students would not have had the background knowledge needed to make the garden such a success or the excitement that they had each time we went out in the garden.”

In the future, the camp will be getting a barn that is being provided by a grant. Once the barn is open, several new lesson plan options will also be available.

As exciting as these new physical improvements to the program are, Jordan said it’s the intellectual curiosity among the students that he is most enthusiastic about.

“There’s a gravity in being able to be a part of a developing person’s journey,” Jordan said. “When you see a kid that actually wants to learn about stuff and is concerned with issues, it makes you want to be the vessel for their development.”

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Information from: Oxford Eagle, https://www.oxfordeagle.com

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