Wilderness Classroom : More Than 17,000 Youngsters in County Will Attend Science Camp for Hands-On Lessons


Teri Boniella stood by a tree in the San Bernardino National Forest and explained to a group of children how to use binoculars.

“I get black spots on mine,” said 10-year-old Bo Davis, peering through the glasses.

“It might be your eyelashes that you’re seeing,” said Boniella, hiking a backpack over her shoulder. “OK, everyone, now follow me.”

Bo, a fifth-grader at Harbor View Elementary School in Corona del Mar, is one of more than 17,000 students in the county who during this school year will attend the Outdoor Science School, a nonprofit, five-day science camp administered by the County Department of Education in conjunction with local school district personnel.


The attendance is a far cry from the science school’s start in 1974, when 1,400 students participated. Today, students from about 250 public and private schools in Orange County travel to the woods for hands-on field applications of lessons in wildlife, forestry, geology and ecology learned in science classes. Another 26 schools in San Bernardino County also participate.

Sites are leased from private organizations such as the YMCA. For the Harbor View trip, parents paid most of the student fees. About six students were subsidized by the school’s Parent-Faculty Organization.

In other school districts, fund-raising efforts pay costs--about $200 per student--and the Costa Mesa-based Outdoor Science Foundation is now seeking money for future scholarships so that more children can attend.

At the camp’s Ponderosa Pines site children are housed in 12-bed heated cabins with instructors who are hired by the Science School. A site principal, four unit supervisors, a naturalist, an environmentalist and a nurse provide additional on-site support, and the students’ homeroom teachers go along to assist in teaching subjects such as weather forecasting, bird-watching, insect and rock collecting, astronomy, forest-management and table manners.


“I was kind of scared before I got here,” said Bo, who along with 100 fellow Harbor View fifth-graders ventured into the forest last week. “I expected the cabins to not be so comfortable and big and the counselors are nicer than I thought. It’s been really fun.”

At Harbor View, preparation for the trip began three weeks before camp with 14 classroom lessons and various lectures, some given by Harbor View parent volunteers.

Last week, Boniella, one of 12 on-site teachers at Ponderosa Pines, started up the Wildlife Trail, fielding a barrage of questions from nine children--Is it illegal to kill a hummingbird? Will we see bears? Will we go by trash cans? Will we make it back for dinner?

Walking along the trail, the students plucked needles from a white fir tree and chewed them to extract Vitamin C, proud of themselves for remembering the previous day’s tree lesson. “Just like the Indians used to do,” one student explained. Others with little green nets scooped mayflies from a stagnant pond. “Do insects mate just to mate or because they love each other?” asked Peter Carlton, 11, observing a magnified mayfly.

The Wildlife Trail ended at a museum, where students learned that some tarantulas are the size of large pizzas and saw animals such as Napoleon the rat, Ari the chinchilla and Hera, the Columbian red-tailed boa constrictor.

Other activities during the week include a four-hour picnic hike, a night hike, a “star walk,” a campfire gathering and a skit night with an environmental theme. Camp lessons are followed up with an classroom review back at the school.