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Ozark Natural Science Center hosts Chicago students

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Photographs by Ben Goff

Joanie Patterson (third from left) talks about wildlife Friday to fourth-graders from Brighton Park school in Chicago at Ozark Natural Science Center near Huntsville. The students from Brighton Park, a public charter school, are visiting Northwest Arkansas for a five-day immersive environmental education program.

HUNTSVILLE -- Eric Voecks, lead naturalist at Ozark Natural Science Center, spotted a snake in a pond and alerted fourth-graders playing in an adjacent field on Friday afternoon.

"How many of you want to see a snake?" he shouted.

Ozark Natural Science Center

The Ozark Natural Science Center’s classroom is the 400-acre Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission Bear Hollow Natural Area. The central campus includes three lodges, an education building, guest housing, faculty housing, the Stewart Springfield Memorial Outdoor Classroom, an observation deck, and almost 8 miles of maintained hiking trails.

Source: Ozark Natural Science Center

The students shrieked in glee and rushed to the edge of the pond, where Voecks pointed out a creature sitting in the mud. It was a kind of northern water snake, he said.

The center regularly hosts students from across the region, but the group of 33 fourth-graders that spent this past weekend there was notable for the fact they traveled about 600 miles for the experience.

Laura Fennell Castle, founding principal of Acero Brighton Park Elementary School in southwest Chicago, grew up in Rogers and visited the science center twice as a kid -- once as a fifth-grader at Bonnie Grimes Elementary School and again in high school.

Castle left her principal's job last year upon the births of her twin boys, but she wanted students to have the same kind of experience she had as a child. Arranging and organizing their trip to the science center was a way for her to stay connected with the school, she said.

The center "was special to me growing up," said Castle, who made the trip with her husband, 2-year-old daughter and twin 8-month-old boys. "It's one of the things that really made me love school. It made me want to learn, particularly about science."

The 33 students on the trip represented half of the fourth-graders at Acero Brighton Park, a public charter school for kindergarten through eighth grade. Four school staff members accompanied them. The group came by bus Thursday and was scheduled to return home today.

"I think it's a great opportunity for students who live in an urban setting to get to come to a place like this, spend time outside and learn how to become good stewards of a healthy planet and environment," said Castle, a 2003 Rogers High School graduate.

Most of the students are Hispanic and come from low-income families, Castle said. Most have attended Acero Brighton Park since 2013 when the school opened and they were in kindergarten.

Friday began with a two-hour hike with science center naturalists. The kids spent time in a cave and splashed around in a creek. They were "enchanted" by a butterfly they saw along the way, said Joanie Patterson, a staff naturalist.

After lunch, they wandered down a trail, where they each were instructed to find a "magic spot" where they sat in silence for about 10 minutes and absorbed the wooded scenery all around them.

Returning to the lodge, the students paired up and drew outlines of each other's bodies on giant sheets of paper. Later, University of Arkansas engineering students Alexa Koenigseder and Kneiyah Bragg showed up to lead a hands-on lesson in natural water filtration.

Guadalupe Chacon, 9, called Friday morning's hike "tiring, but great." It was her first time visiting a place like the science center.

When Guadalupe found out her school was organizing this trip, she told her mother about it.

"I was thinking this might be a memorable moment I have in my life, and it could be a change in my life. So when I told my mom about it, she was actually supporting me, because she knew that we have never had one of these experiences before," Guadalupe said.

The center offers hands-on, experiential field science opportunities each year to about 3,000 students, most of whom come from Arkansas and Oklahoma. It offered its first residential program in 1992, according to its website. Students sleep in facilities on the site.

Becky Olthof, interim executive director of the science center, said all lessons taught there tie back to what's being taught in students' classrooms.

"We make the textbooks come alive," Olthof said.

Most students spend one night at the science center on their visits. The four-night visit for the Acero Brighton Park students was designed specially for them, Olthof said.

The students raised money to help pay for their trip, which all together cost about $350 per child, Castle said. The students were able to apply for scholarships to pay for it. Six children received full scholarships and others received partial scholarships.

Castle began planning the trip a year in advance. She praised center officials for their cooperation.

"They have helped us by preparing materials for our parent meetings, so our parents would have a clear idea of what they were sending their kids to," Castle said. "They've helped us in terms of making sure the buses are arriving at the correct time and students are being fed. We were just so well cared for by them."

Becky Olthof, Ozark Natural Science Center interim executive director, leads a group of fourth-graders from Brighton Park school in Chicago on a walk ...

NW News on 04/16/2018

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