Sunday, February 10, 2008

Camp Cooper: Hands-on Learning

I had an opportunity to go on a hike on Thursday that really turned out great. I even got to touch a saguaro cactus.

I went out to the Cooper Environmental Science Campus, affectionately known as Camp Cooper by the teachers and students, to interview one of the environmental teachers for an upcoming story. The site is on the west side of Tucson, Ariz., just north of where Gates Pass Road takes over for West Speedway Boulevard, in the midst of burgeoning residential development. To the east and west are expensive houses surrounded by natural desert landscaping.

Inside Camp Cooper, however, is where the real desert lives.

Kathy Lloyd teaches kids about desert resources five days a week at Camp Cooper. Photo by Jennifer Tramm. All rights reserved.

Kathy Lloyd, Resource Teacher, took me on a tour of the facilities while we waited for a busload of Utterback Magnet Middle School students. The facility has cabins for overnight guests, a kitchen, learning stations and modern restrooms.
As we talked, I noticed the intense quiet of the 10-acre plot of land. When I noticed an odd sound coming from the bushes behind us, Lloyd told me it was a Gambel’s Quail – a female, to be exact. We spoke about the different animals to be found on-site before going on with the tour, which she said was not unlike the orientation that teachers get before bringing their students to the camp.

The main teaching room is in its own little building – complete with solar panels on the roof and snakes and tarantulas inside. Lloyd says she uses the animals to teach kids about desert wildlife.
While she was showing me this eco-friendly building, a dozen little birds, including more quail, doves and others, landed on nearby bushes and on the ground in between. They all looked at Lloyd expectantly.

She laughed when I mentioned them and said she often feeds them roasted peanuts, which keeps them coming back. She picked up a can of nuts and gently tossed several handfuls in the birds’ direction. They pounced. Lloyd explained that she does not give them birdseed because she is concerned that the seeds could sprout non-native plants, potentially putting the natural environment in danger. A desert bunny showed up shortly after she tossed the nuts and helped herself to a nut, undisturbed by pigeons pushing each other out of the way to get at the remaining nuts.

After the kids showed up and they’d gone through an orientation and Q&A session, we set out on the “medium” trail, which means it goes up slightly in elevation. All three of their trails are about a mile long.

Not long after we went down a set of timber and earth stairs to get to the trail proper, Lloyd spotted wildcat scat. Now, that’s not a University of Arizona basketball player running away, but the poo of the university mascot’s namesake. She gathered the kids around and told them about what they could learn from the scat, including what it ate and how long ago it may have been there.

Rough-and-tumble javelinas at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, another desert resource on the west side of Tucson, Ariz. Photo by James Tramm. All rights reserved.

A few feet from that pile lay another, this time from a javelina, that desert peccary often mistaken for a wild pig. Lloyd was able to tell the students that the animal had made his deposit about a day to a day and a half before and that it had eaten cactus spines, which could be seen throughout the sample. I heard a variety of responses to this information, but the loudest and most common was “ew!”

Lloyd led us in single file up a mild slope that was covered in different sized rocks – from pebbles to small boulders. As she stopped us every so often to discuss different features of the desert habitat for animals, the kids would alternate looking around and listening intently. The students asked insightful questions and answered more from Lloyd, which she said were designed to make them think. Even the parents got into the discussions.

At one stop, the hike got interactive. Lloyd asked the students to go up to a bush and touch it, then scratch a leaf lightly with a fingernail. Then she asked students why they thought the color of the leaf changed. At another stop, we learned that the saguaro cactus isn’t a uniform plant. For the first five feet or so, it has large, rigid spines. After that, the spines are smaller and not as dangerous. Such a design is a defense mechanism, to ward off animals that might like a snack. The kids got to touch again – in the fold between the rows of spines. This time, I joined in. It was cool to the touch.

Young hands reach out to discover the texture of a saguaro cactus at Camp Cooper Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008. Photo by Jennifer Tramm. All rights reserved.

Near the end of the looped trail we stopped to learn about nurse plants, or plants that grow with others nestled underneath their branches. One such plant is the creosote bush, one of which was “nursing” a small barrel cactus. Lloyd got the kids involved again, asking them to cup their hands around some creosote leaves and sort of huff in between their hands. I joined in again, completely captivated by the environment. Pew! Creosote is a strong odor! Lloyd said that smell is what permeates the air when it rains. I love that smell…but apparently not when it’s dry.
The hike ended with a walk along a ridge that gave a spectacular view of Tucson.

Sadly, the view included a thick layer of yellow-brown pollution hovering above this beautiful desert city.

Utterback Magnet Middle School science teacher Russ Kendricks looks over the desert landscape toward Tucson from Camp Cooper. Photo by Jennifer Tramm. All rights reserved.

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