Oakley School site seen as key first campus for ambitious plan to expand experiential science learning in the Wasatch Back
Students wading into the Provo River, collecting water samples and coming back to shore to show their teacher how they’ve done.
Groups of fifth-graders lying on mats in the dark, looking into the starry night sky and learning about the constellations, a campfire crackling quietly.
A young girl chasing a hopping toad down a path while the leaves turn from green to orange around her.
These are some of the scenes a group of education professionals want to make happen in the Wasatch Back, providing experiential science learning to connect students to nature, to their teachers and to themselves.
And the Wasatch Mountain Institute sees the former Oakley School as key to their initial plans — the first step in what they hope will be a five-campus endeavor to provide outdoor learning resources to students and adults in Northern Utah.
The former Oakley School, which shut its doors in 2017 after 19 years, provided college preparatory eduction and therapy support for students who were transitioning from substance abuse or mental health treatment programs.
Wasatch Mountain Institute officials said the building’s nearly turnkey infrastructure, including a kitchen, classrooms and sleeping quarters for more than 100 students, is an ideal first campus for the organization and would require comparatively little investment to get it ready for students.
The idea is lofty and will take some serious fundraising to get off the ground. Wasatch Mountain Institute initiator Wayne Turner said the group is looking to raise $7.5 million to purchase the site, renovate it and offset initial operating costs.
While they’re “quite a ways away,” and the timing amid the pandemic is imperfect, Turner is optimistic about the program’s chances of success.
“I feel more confident than I ever have,” Turner said in a recent interview.
Jack Livingood, who owns the site of the former Oakley School along with a partner, said it has been vacant since 2017 and that they’re trying to find the right program for it.
“We love the Wasatch Mountain Institute plan, it’s really why we’re interested in them acquiring it,” Livingood said. “I just think it’s awesome — great for kids, great for our communities.”
Turner and fellow initiator Jack Shea have decades of experience running the Teton Science School in Jackson, Wyoming, and believe the concept of outdoor learning has a home in Utah.
They identify the exploding population of the Wasatch Front alongside the burgeoning Silicon Slopes tech sector and the state’s pride in its beautiful natural landscapes as primary ingredients for success.
According to Wasatch Mountain Institute documents, more than half a million school-aged children live within 90 miles of the Wasatch Range.
Wasatch Mountain Institute is a nonprofit that hopes to fund itself through tuition and philanthropic donations. Its program director, Howard Vogt, and program associate, Hilary Lambert, describe the benefits of experiential science learning as transformative for students, teachers and the classroom dynamic.
“(Seeing) science come alive — it’s an experience that can then move through the rest of the school year,” Vogt said. “If you’ve been on a camping trip before, just going through a camping experience increases trust between people. Students and teachers are able to develop a rapport that transcends (that) learning experience.”
Vogt said the kind of learning that can be done in the field tends to stay with students, a “stickiness” factor that has benefits beyond the time spent outdoors.
Lambert said the program aligns with the state’s new science curriculum — the Science with Engineering Education (SEED) standards.
“We’re totally rethinking how we approach science,” Lambert said. She characterized it as “here’s how you do science, not here’s what you should know.”
Wasatch Mountain Institute’s idea is to start with the Oakley campus as a pilot program to show proof of the concept and establish relationships with school districts. The group hopes to eventually establish a headquarters in Wasatch Mountain State Park, help refurbish and use the Rock Cliff Nature Center in Jordanelle State Park, restore the Tate Barn in Wasatch Mountain State Park and establish an urban site in Salt Lake City.
If the program evolves as the nonprofit hopes, the Oakley campus would transition in a few years to serve as the site of a high school semester-in-nature.
Vogt said the offerings could evolve from four-hour day trips to the campus and nearby natural settings to four-day overnight stays to four-month high school semesters.
Already, the group has facilitated an outdoor learning trip for a large group from Backman Elementary School in Salt Lake City and has received a grant from the state to pursue continued educational offerings for Title 1 schools, Vogt said.
He’s optimistic they’ll hold overnight field trips for students in the upcoming school year.
Wasatch Mountain Institute officials see experiential science learning as a way to provoke in students a lifelong love of learning, a respect for nature and a desire to act as environmental stewards.
The program dovetails with a 2019 Utah legislative concurrent resolution that supports the state’s Every Kid Outdoors Initiative. It says that today’s children are spending more time indoors, less time exercising and that these trends could lead to negative health outcomes.
“There is significant value in providing opportunities for children to experience awe-inspiring moments while gazing upon the natural beauty of Utah’s uniquely spectacular outdoor places,” the resolution states. “Quality time in the natural world encourages curiosity, and provides hands-on field experience and experiential learning, resulting in improved learning across various fields of science.”
Turner said momentum was building for Wasatch Mountain Institute during the last legislative session before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, including landing a meeting with Rep. Brad Wilson, the speaker of the house.
Turner said many investors are interested in the project but are waiting to see how the effects of the pandemic play out. Oakley officials said they have not received an application for the Wasatch Mountain Institute to operate at the site, a step Turner said would wait until the group had raised the money necessary to buy the property.
Shea said the trend of children spending less time outside provides an opportunity.
“The gap is inspirational — there’s a need,” he said. “Who’s teaching the next generation this way?”
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