AYER — Ayer High Middle School has a growing outdoor education program, which recently expanded to include an annual three-day field trip to study marine science in Rhode Island.
Taken in late September, the field trip brought 65 sixth-graders to a stretch of beach in Wakefield, R.I., which has become a center of hands-on learning under the nonprofit group, Nature’s Classroom.
Having seen the kids study everything from team-building to shark dissection while in Rhode Island, trip coordinator Barbara Dyer said the students learned a lot from the school’s first sojourn to Nature’s Classroom, adding she expected the trip will become an annual event.
“For our first year running it, we got a huge response, that’s what makes it so special,” said Dyer. “It’s an exceptional program, something we highly recommend.”
A technology teacher by trade, Dyer has spearheaded establishment of the Ayer High School’s outdoor program since she was hired by the district three years ago.
An avid hiker whose resume includes a summer of working at Yellowstone National Park, she said outdoor education provides important hands-on learning experiences for children, along with a unique opportunity to learn about the environment that can be found just off the beaten track.
Toward that end, Dyer teaches a high-school elective known as Mountain Classroom, where students go hiking twice per week as part of a curriculum that incorporates geology, ecology, geography, and local history.
In the big picture, Dyer said the plan is to have outdoor education offerings for students in grades 6-12, and she expressed hope that the Nature’s Classroom field trip could help spark interest toward that end.
Similarly, Dyer has worked alongside Ayer High School Assistant Principal Rich McGrath to organize Mountain Classroom field trips to the White Mountains for the seventh-grade class the past few years. Similar to Nature’s Classroom, the White Mountain field trip is done in conjunction with a nonprofit, Mountain Classroom, which Dyer has been affiliated with as a member and volunteer for more than 15 years.
Dyer said the next field trip to the White Mountains will be held this January, with the goal of teaching students about wintertime survival, finding animal tracks, and other outdoor activities. Beyond that, she said the students typically learn by working together over the course of three straight days as well.
“Some kids really do thrive in this type of environment,” she said. “They just have a whole new insight on what it’s like to be in a communal environment with their peers.”
In practice, Dyer said the district administration and School Committee have been very supportive of the outdoor education program, adding that the Ayer Education Foundation provided a key grant for the Rhode Island field trip.
While Dyer said she doesn’t have enough time in the day to add an elective outdoor program for the middle school as well, she was optimistic that the additional field trip could help grow the program as a whole.
“It’s really exposure and an opportunity for the students to get involved and be environmentally aware,” she said.