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New class allows students to engage campers in environmental studies

By Hee Jae Choi
Originally posted in the Daily Bruin 

A group of 20 UCLA students – half-smiling, half-gaping – seemed puzzled upon hearing about their first class assignment: build the tallest free-standing tower of pasta.

It was the first day of their environmental science class, called “Building an Outdoor Environmental Education Program for UCLA UniCamp.”

For the first time this quarter, UCLA is offering the course, in which students will create and implement outdoor science programs for UCLA UniCamp. The non-profit organization, which started in 1934, is an outdoor camp partially staffed by UCLA students where children from low-income backgrounds can attend for free.

Creative exercises like the pasta activity are meant to get the class thinking about 10 science-based projects they will develop and teach at the camp.

They will connect 4th and 5th graders to the unique environmental features of Camp River Glen in San Bernardino County, where the camp is located. For now, the class is focused on brainstorming and creating a curriculum, which will be implemented into UniCamp’s program starting next August.

The class is being put on by the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said Cully Nordby, the Institute’s academic director. Officials plan to offer the course every fall quarter, depending on how successful the class is this year, Nordby said.

“UniCamp came to us first. They wanted to fuse sustainability into the UniCamp experience,” Nordby said. “And seeing how so many UCLA students are already in UniCamp, it was a no-brainer.”

The UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get involved in K-12 education, Nordby added.

Wally Wirick, executive director of UniCamp, said he thinks the class will help UCLA students to pursue more hands-on education when they work with the kids at camp. He said he thinks this will inspire the campers to further their own education.

“There seems to be something magical about having UCLA students who have made the grade, gotten into a major university and who (are) now giving back as volunteers,” Wirick said. “The kids look up to them and think, ‘I can be in (their) position.’”

At Monday’s class, the students dove into their craft in groups of four, using only 12 sticks of spaghetti, marshmallows, tape and a piece of string to build their towers. Soon, spaghetti lightning rods teetered on spaghetti tripods, welded together by wads of marshmallows and tape.

Justin Betzelberger, the instructor of the class, said hands-on experience is at the core of the new course.

Betzelberger aims for the class to be focused on reflection of educational experience and scientific inquiry.

“I’m looking for students to develop engaging, hands-on programs that get the campers questioning and collecting the necessary data and research,” Betzelberger said.

However, Betzelberger said he thinks the students’ ability to capture the campers’ interest at UniCamp will only come after reflecting on their own educational experience.

“I want (the students) to start thinking ‘What is education?’” Betzelberger said. “What does it mean to learn? What contributes to a positive learning experience?”

Nine of the 20 students in the class have already had the experience of working as UniCamp counselors and enrolled in the course out of fond memories of the kids they lived with and taught over the summer.

For Ellie Joo, a third-year biochemistry student who has had experience planning SAT curriculum for high school students, the class is an opportunity for her to learn about teaching environmental science to kids.

“It’s usually difficult to incorporate environmental science into teachings because you need hands-on resources,” Joo said. “You have to take the class (outside), have them touch the soil, see the trees.”

A student only needs to ask Betzelberger a question to find out that the class is “different” from other college classes, as he puts it. He intentionally answers questions with more questions, helping students come up with their own answers.

“I do my best not to answer questions with responses. I answer them with more questions,” he said with a grin. “But that’s what education is, right?”