CSTA Classroom Science

How One Program Uses Hands-on Experiences in the Outdoors to Teach the Environmental Principles & Concepts (EP&Cs)

Allison Collins, Site Principal, San Joaquin County Office of Education, Camp Jones Gulch
Lissa Gilmore, Program Coordinator, San Joaquin County Office of Education, Camp Jones Gulch

It’s 7:00am in the foggy coast redwood forest, and students from San Joaquin County are just waking up and getting moving for their day in their cabins, just as they have for the last 63 years here at Camp Jones Gulch. San Joaquin County Office of Education has been running it’s Outdoor Education program, the second oldest in the state, here since the first group of students came from Jefferson School in Tracy, California in 1956.  

While the program on the surface looks similar - banana slug counts, tidepools, and staring up at the old growth redwoods during the day, night hikes, songs, and campfires at night - the educational curriculum has continued to shift and adapt to meet the standards and expectations of the state of California, and has, in many ways, been introducing students and schools to the standards first.  

An immersive, five-day, residential program focused on science skills is an excellent way to address the EP&Cs, but it is not the only way.  Here are some of the ways in which these Principles are taught and learned in our program.

Principle 1 - People Depend on Natural Systems
The continuation and health of individual human lives and of human communities and societies depend on the health of the natural systems that provide essential goods and ecosystem services.

Students eat all of their meals communally in a dining hall where we talk about food systems and food waste. On Wednesdays, we go “meatless”, and talk about the impact of meat consumption and how even one less meal or day of meat can make a big difference. This is an important lesson for students, food doesn’t just come from the grocery store, there is a whole chain and our choices affect the system as a whole.

Principle 2 - People Influence Natural Systems
The long-term functioning and health of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal, and marine ecosystems are influenced by their relationships with human societies.

Another aspect of our communal dining hall experience is our focus on reducing waste - food and paper. While we use paper towels to dry our hands before we eat (health and safety first!), we try to encourage students to use less paper napkins in the dining hall and to take only what they are going to eat and eat what they take. We call our food waste “ort”, and measure after each meal to try to make it on the “Ort Hall of Fame.” Schools come year after year and are always trying to beat the previous year in lessening their food waste.

Principle 3 - Natural Systems Change in Ways that People Benefit From and Can Influence
Natural systems proceed through cycles that humans depend upon, benefit from, and can alter.

The best parts of our program occur out of doors, as we hike and learn in the coast redwood forest. As we navigate our way through the myriad of trails that crisscross through, we learn about the role that people have played in shaping this natural system, and the ways that natural systems have supported human life in this area. The buckeye grove was likely planted, and the buckeyes were used by earlier inhabitants of our space to fish. Additionally, fire plays an important role in our forest, clearing out the underbrush and allowing new life to grow in the dense redwoods.

Principle 4 - There are no Permanent or Impermeable Boundaries that Prevent Matter from Flowing Between Systems
The exchange of matter between natural systems and human societies affects the long-term functioning of both.

Each week, our students get the opportunity to visit the Pescadero Marsh and see the importance of marshes as an ecosystem and as a resting space for migratory birds first hand. Students are able to learn about how most of the marshes and wetlands in California are gone and how important those that remain are for the organisms that live and visit there. A fun activity that we do on camp to teach about the marsh is called “Marsh Town Hall”, where students represent different community groups and debate building a strip mall over the Pescadero Marsh.

Principle 5 - Decisions Affecting Resources and Natural Systems are Complex and Involve Many Factors
Decisions affecting resources and natural systems are based on a wide range of considerations and decision-making processes.
Natural systems are complex and multifaceted, and with our residential program we provide opportunities for students to engage in community in complex and multifaceted ways. Students are housed in cabins with others from different communities across San Joaquin County, with a high school leader as their guide. As they learn to manage and allocate the resources available to them - shower time, bed space, and even pancakes at breakfast—they gain insight into layers and levels of consideration required in human and natural systems.

After busy, full days of laughter, learning, and new experiences, students curl up in their sleeping bags and drift off to sleep. In the science education field, we know that these meaningful, hands-on, immersive experiences are one of the best ways for students to learn. Classroom teachers returning to school report that students come back from their week as new excited learners and community members, and we couldn’t ask for more.

For more information, please visit the Environmental Principle and Concepts website.

For more information about an Outdoor Education Program in your area please visit, The California Outdoor Schools Association website.

If you have any questions you can reach out to Allison Collins and Lissa Gilmore from San Joaquin County Office of Education, Camp Jones Gulch.

~ Allison Collins, Site Principal, San Joaquin County Office of Education, Camp Jones Gulch
~ Lissa Gilmore, Program Coordinator, San Joaquin County Office of Education, Camp Jones Gulch



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