Students escape comfort zones at Lab School

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By Corinne Westeman

At the Mount Evans Outdoor Lab School in eastern Clear Creek County, comfort comes in second to the collecting of knowledge and experiences.

Principal David Epp and program specialist Jason Harding call the week spent by sixth-graders at the Outdoor Lab “the great leveler.”

“It gets everyone out of their comfort zones, whether they live in the mountains or not — they learn not to take this experience for granted,” Epp said. “It’s also about building confidence and changing their self-perception. That’s a bigger takeaway than anything they’d learn about biology — getting out of their comfort zone and getting outside.”

More than 90 sixth-graders from Conifer’s West Jefferson Middle School spent last week at the Mount Evans site. Sixth-graders in the Jeffco district spend a week at Outdoor Lab, where they learn about nature, teamwork, leadership and themselves.

Epp and Harding said more than 6,000 sixth-graders visit the Outdoor Labs at Mount Evans and at Windy Peak each year. At the lab, the students spend their days in interactive lessons learning about the bio-, geo-, and hydrospheres; physics, or “forces in motion”; navigation; field study; astronomy; and initiatives, which teach students leadership and teamwork.

Harding said the students spent last Thursday learning about the Mount Evans school’s history, including “what it was like for those early pioneers to settle and live here.”

Most importantly, though, the students learn to build confidence and appreciate the mountain environment they live in, Epp and Harding said.

The point of the school’s curriculum, they said, is to emphasize “stewardship of self, community and environment.”

On Feb. 8, Brittany O’Connor, 17, one of the 16 students from Conifer High School who was serving as a student leader, was taking a group of 10 pupils through the cycle of the local watershed. The lesson was part of the hydrosphere curriculum, which teaches where the water comes from and where it goes after it’s used, Harding said.

O’Connor gave the students a tour of the watershed, and then they followed the water to a well, then to a water treatment center, then to a cistern.

At the cistern site, O’Connor and the students talked about how much water they use at the camp in a single week. Estimating that each person at the camp uses 100 gallons of water a day, and the cistern beneath them holds 50,000 gallons, the cistern has to fill twice a week “for everyone to have clean water.”

“That’s why we ask you guys to conserve water, and take only two- or three-minute showers,” she told the students, as they nodded in understanding.

One student taking notes asked how to spell “cistern,” and another admitted to spelling it “sister.”

As the students walked to the Lab School’s wastewater treatment plant, O’Connor said she applied to be a high school leader “because I remember the leaders were really fun when I did it, and I might want to go into teaching.”

The hardest part, she commented, was “staying awake and happy for (the students).”

As the students took turns looking into the wastewater treatment plant, J.T. Dalton, 12, said he was enjoying his time at Outdoor Lab, and that hiking had been his favorite part so far. The least favorite aspect, he added, was missing sleeping in his own bed.

J.T. said he was enjoying learning about the water cycle, and how the local watershed experiences it “multiple times” in a single year.

“And I really like that we’re outside most of the day,” J.T. said.