Students from the Houston area got a chance to explore the forest in November during Texas A&M Forest Service’s “Classroom Without Walls” program at the W.G. Jones State Forest in Conroe.
The program serves more than 400 second and third graders each year, giving students an opportunity to interact with nature while introducing them to concepts such as forest ecology, wildlife habitats and adaptations, endangered species, the water cycle and wildfires.
The program, which has been conducted for more than a decade, includes presentations from Texas A&M Forest Service staff members and Texas Master Naturalist Heartwood Chapter volunteers.
Within the program, students rotate through learning stations related to each of the concepts. The stations incorporate activities and curriculum from Project Learning Tree, an environmental education program aimed at increasing forest literacy.
At one of the wildlife stations, students learned about various characteristics of animals, including types of teeth, coloration and diet. This was followed by an activity on the value of camouflage, which had the students pretend to be birds in search of worms. The “worms” were represented by colored pasta noodles scattered in the grass. After each student found a noodle, the results were tabulated and recorded on a graph, with the results showing the green “worms” were the hardest to find.
During a nature hike, students noted the different types of trees and plants in the forest, smelled the aroma of wax myrtle leaves and even spotted a snake warming in the sun.
After learning about the stages of the water cycle, students formed groups for an activity that led them through seven destinations: cloud, glacier, stream, groundwater, ocean, plant and animal. They were then encouraged to write a story about their experience as a water droplet.
Students also learned about the dangers and causes of wildfire and the tools and equipment used to battle fires, as well as the benefits of prescribed fire in a forest.
Vanessa Murdock, a third grade teacher at Bush Elementary in Conroe, said the forest visit is one of the most popular field trips for both students and parents.
“It’s always entertaining and keeps the kids engaged with fun activities,” Murdock said. “One concern as a teacher is that kids don’t get outside enough, and we need to model that outdoor experience. We’re so fortunate that this is available.”
Murdock said the lessons from the program correlate to Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, TEKS, standards she teaches in the classroom.
“Everything that they talked about directly aligns with our science curriculum, and then we go back and write about our experience,” she said. “It’s really easy to refer back to it throughout the year and hook our learning onto this experience.”
Connor Murnane, Texas A&M Forest Service district forester who manages the W.G. Jones State Forest, said the concepts introduced during the program will stay with the students for the rest of their academic careers.
“The most rewarding experience for me is when a student is able to connect what they are learning on the forest to what they have learned in their classroom back home,” Murnane said. “I believe exposing children to nature and the world around them is of utmost importance, especially in an ever-urbanizing and technologically driven society, which makes the W.G. Jones State Forest such a perfect backdrop for a day of learning in the woods.”