Nature's Blackboard : Camp Surrounds Students With Their Studies

Mackey is a North Hollywood free-lance writer.

It was an experience few sixth-grade students ever imagine: 72 uninterrupted hours in a classroom studying natural science--and loving every minute of it.

For students from the Van Nuys First Baptist Day School and Grace Community School in Sun Valley, the classroom was Paradise Springs Outdoor Science Education Center in the heart of Angeles National Forest.

Located at the 5,000-foot level in the San Gabriel Mountains, Paradise Springs has a smorgasbord of ecosystems for the curious observer. Surrounded by chaparral and mountain plant and wildlife, the 145-acre center has numerous streams and ponds, marshes, a petting zoo filled with orphaned and injured animals, and five earthquake faults.

Visiting students recently received firsthand lessons in natural science--such as making "acorn pie," pounding rope out of yucca stems and building survival shelters in the wilderness.

For the past five years, Paradise Springs has been opened to the public as a camping area and retreat. Last year, the Christian-operated center began offering one- and three-day natural science programs to public, private and church-affiliated schools in Southern California. Since then, nearly 40 classes have been held.

The programs are not an attempt to replace normal classroom studies. Instead, co-director Joyce Bilgrave said, most teachers expect the field trips to supplement what students have already studied.

"Each of us takes in information in many ways," said Bilgrave, a former elementary school teacher and principal. "But what would make a stronger impression on you--reading about an earthquake fault, or walking on one? Would you rather read about how the Indians made soap from plants, or make it yourself?"

The two classes of sixth-grade students at the camp that day had no trouble making their preference known.

After rising early from the center's tepees and eating a camp-style breakfast of eggs and sausage, the 80 boys and girls gathered outdoors in a circle beneath a pine tree. For the next hour, science teacher and co-director Jane Seeds explained how Kitanemuk Indians of the region gathered and prepared food.

"The Indians didn't have supermarkets, and they had to eat what was available," Seeds told the children. Often that included tiny black chia seeds, the first edible plants to appear each spring, and a plant with small round leaves, commonly called "miner's lettuce."

Another scrubby-looking plant with waxy leaves, Seeds said, gained the common name of "holy herb" when the Indians showed early pioneers how boiling its leaves for tea could cure dysentery. The same plant, which tastes like a mixture of bubble gum and cough syrup, is frequently seen protruding from the lips of local hikers, since it keeps the mouth salivating and wards off thirst.

"The Indians also ate pinion nuts, which have a lot of calories--5,000 to the pound," Seeds said. "The Indians must have known that, because they carried them when they went out looking for food. Pregnant women weren't allowed to eat them because they were afraid they'd get too fat."

Later, a handful of the children went up a hill to gather some of the buttery-tasting nuts from a nearby pine tree. Others learned how Indians pounded rope or made soap from yucca plants, made pillows from the insides of cattails that grow on nearby hillsides or wove mats from native plants.

"When do we have to go to the class?" Seeds was asked by one boy in the group gathering pine nuts.

"This is it," Seeds replied, smiling.

The boy took a moment to let the information sink in, then broke into a relieved grin. "This is the class?" he asked increduously. "This is fun ."

To help students get the most from their experience, Paradise Springs staff members meet with each school's teacher prior to the field trip. In addition to a list of commonly used terms at the center, such as chaparral and riparian, a description of each activity also is provided.

Many teachers who attend the center with their students say the benefits of the experience begin with learning about natural science, but frequently extend much further.

"Coming to a natural habitat incorporated a lot of what we've been studying in class, but I noticed a real difference in the kids being out there," said Adele Andersen, a sixth-grade teacher at Grace Community School.

"We went to the La Brea Tar Pits on one field trip, but this was different," Andersen said. "Some of the kids have never been exposed to this kind of environment. For them, I guess you'd have to call it eye-opening."

Church-affiliated schools that send students to Paradise Springs frequently incorporate into their schedules Bible studies and devotionals, which are given by the schools' personnel. When presenting the science programs to these schools, Bilgrave said, Paradise Springs staff members consciously reinforce various Christian and creationist teachings.

"Paradise Springs is run by Christians, and so we believe the world was created by God," Bilgrave said.

Motioning behind her to an area of sandstone rocks known as "The Devil's Punchbowl," which geologists say was thrust up from the earth's center over 30 million years ago, Bilgrave said that many Christians do not believe the earth is that old.

"That doesn't prevent us from presenting natural science to secular schools, though," she said. "When we come to a controversial area, we say that there are different opinions. It's just as easy for us to say, 'Nature had a reason for this' as it is to say, 'God had a reason for this.' "

Owned at one time by television actor Noah Berry, Paradise Springs was developed into a ruggedly luxurious romping spot for Hollywood stars during the 1920s and '30s. Berry's plans included a dance pavilion, tennis courts, a swimming pool, numerous stone cottages and a 8 1/2-acre trout farm.

After changing hands numerous times over the next half century, Paradise Springs, which had fallen into disrepair, was bought by a private Christian group in 1981. Two of the original cottages and the trout farm are still intact. Plans are under way to build a youth retreat center and an adult conference center sometime next year, Bilgrave said.

"We've read and studied about geology and ecology, but once the kids are really out there, they get to see the beauty of it all--which is what natural science is about," teacher Andersen said.

Kimberley Fisher, an 11-year-old student at Grace Community School, agreed.

"You realize how big the universe is, and how small the yucca plant is," she said. "It opens your mind and shows you how wonderful the world is."

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