Middle-schoolers trade textbooks for tents

Lincoln Middle School teacher Tim Sprain held his air horn high in the air and let is blast.

“Good morning campers,” said Sprain into a microphone.

Hitting the snooze button is not an option this morning.

“If you are still asleep, please wake up,” said Sprain.

The last of the middle-schoolers hustled out of their tents. They’re in the woods of Black River Falls taking part in an end-of-the-year outdoor educational experience.

It’s time for class; time to catch some birds.

“Of course, we’re hoping some unwary bird won’t be able to see this net,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife ornithologist Kathy Carlyle to a group of students gathered around her in the woods.


“When you take students out in the environment, they develop these senses. And from those senses, they get feelings. From those feelings, emotions. From emotions, values. And then values, actions,” said Sprain.

The 160 middle-school students from Lincoln Middle, Coulee Montessori and School of Technology and Arts II are learning in the great outdoors — with all their senses.

“The skunk sprayed and we had a whole session on skunk ecology and habitat,” said Sprain.

“We were not allowed to go anywhere near it. But we could smell it. We could smell it for a while,” said Coulee Montessori sixth-grader Anna Jansson.

Students might think they’re getting a break from learning.

“It’s a nice break from, like, the math and the geometry and the reading and stuff,” said Jansson.

But Sprain said they’re just learning those subjects in a different way.

“You cannot learn what the students are learning from a screen,” said Sprain. “Their eyes get bright and they’re just transfixed and zoned in on this new piece of learning. Something they could not explain before in their life.”

There’s research to back up the effectiveness of this kind of hands-on learning. A Purdue University study showed middle-school students scored 20 percent better on tests when they learned by doing instead of by lecturing.

Students participating in the event also learned about pack llamas, plants, water monitoring and storytelling.