"It looked like a golden city," he said, describing the view he glimpsed during a recent night hike through Stevens Creek County Park. It was the first time the Huff Elementary School fifth-grader had ever seen his city and the surrounding Bay Area from on high, and the experience was revelatory. "I didn't really think this area was so big."
Anthony took in the sight, along with a group of his peers from Huff and a handful from Crittenden — all of whom spent Monday, Nov. 7, through Thursday, Nov. 10, at a the Walden West Science Center's science camp in the Cupertino foothills.
It is common for fifth-graders to be astonished by many of the things they see at science camp, said Ron Lauder, a field instructor with Walden West. In fact, Lauder and his colleagues aim to instill a sense of wonder in the children who attend their educational camps.
"A lot of these kids are so sheltered," said Lauder, who has been working on educational programs at Walden West since 1997. He said many of the kids who arrive at the Walden West science camp have never been in the forest, dipped their hands in a creek or seen a wild deer.
"It's a really eye-opening experience for them," said Nicole Grimm, a fifth-grade teacher at Huff. "Being able to go on a hike and see leaves and organisms firsthand can really link what they learned in the classroom to the real world."
Grimm, who has accompanied her class to science camp for the past four years, said the time spent roaming around outdoors, examining leaves and rock formations, really helps the students contextualize what they have read in their textbooks and apply their lessons in the real world.
One of Grimm's students, Abhiraj Giritharan, explained with relish how on one science camp hike he was able to identify a plant's xylem and phloem structures; another, Brianna Sauter, discussed animal scat with a straight face; a third, Sarah Davenport said she had come to a realization about the role trees play in producing oxygen when she considered how fresh the air was outside her cabin each morning.
"In the city, there aren't as many trees, and the air isn't as fresh," Sarah said.
Grimm said that science camp has always proved to be a positive experience and that this year was no exception. Hearing her students talking to one another about topics they have discussed in class and watching them actively involved in one of field guide's lesson plans is gratifying. "They're so excited by what they're learning," she said. "That gets you every year."
In addition to supplementing the students' life-science curriculum, Lauder — who goes by the nickname "Spider" with campers and coworkers — said it has always been a mission of Walden West to teach kids to be stewards of the environment.
After every meal, Lauder has all the children dump their leftovers into a plastic bucket, which he then shows the group in order to illustrate how much food they are throwing away that day. On hikes the kids pick up any piece of trash they see, while keeping an eye out for deer. All of this is aimed at changing the children's behavior for good.
"I think that the most value that comes out of camp is a kind of the rewiring of their brain," Lauder said. "In the past they weren't going to be thinking about nature, they weren't going to be thinking about where their food comes from, they weren't going to be thinking about where an aluminum can goes if you throw it in the trash. What we're hoping for is when they go home that they might actually start doing some things to protect the environment."
According to Grimm's observations over her several years attending Walden West, many of her students are making the positive changes Lauder hopes they will, both at school and at home.
"The science camp experience encourages personal responsibility for our environment and the world around us," said Craig Goldman, superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District. "It gives students an opportunity to think about how their day-to-day practices impact today's world and the world of the future."
Goldman has been a big supporter of the fifth-grade tradition since he was a principal at Huff. Back then, he said, outgoing students would regularly tell him that their fondest memory of Huff was attending science camp.
In addition to making life-science lessons "personally relevant" and teaching children to be more environmentally conscious, the experience of going to camp also helps build critical social skills that will be useful later in life.
"For many, it's their first opportunity to be away from home for an extended period of time, to interact and to work with peers on a 24-hour-per-day basis for four days," he said. "I think it's a very positive experience to have to share close quarters with other students. It's a great life skill."
The district pays for the majority of the $225 per child cost for a week of science camp and does not turn any child away due to financial hardship.