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Blue Ridge Discovery Center offers classes on school off-days for area students

Blue Ridge Discovery Center offers classes on school off-days for area students

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TROUTDALE, Va. — A nature center in neighboring Washington County has developed a curriculum for young learners in the wake of the pandemic.

Blue Ridge Discovery Center in Troutdale, Virginia, is hosting a Science in Nature Program geared for third, fourth and fifth grade students in Washington and Smyth counties.

The hands-on, outdoor program, offered one day each week, is being conducted at the center’s field station, about 18 miles south of Marion. Young learners can still join the current six-week session or enroll in the second session beginning Oct. 14.

Outdoor experiences range from nature hikes and journaling to scientific inquiry and data collection. Participants explore ecology, botany, mammalogy, entomology, ornithology, herpetology, aquatic systems and more.

According to Lisa Benish, program director at the nonprofit organization, the outdoor curriculum was developed after schools in the region moved to 100% virtual learning this fall, allowing the series of hands-on programs to coincide with the schedules of regional schools.

Weekly classes at the nature center are being held from 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Wednesdays when most local students do not engage in virtual instruction but use the day to complete assignments and work on new materials.

Benish said all instruction at the facility is being held outdoors to increase student safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students will be required to wear masks when being transported in a van to field trips.

“We’re anxious to share the outdoors and this beautiful place in which we live with local children, many of whom, I’m sad to say, do not spend much time outdoors,” she said.

“With virtual learning, the kids are inside on computers screens all day, so we thought if we could provide an opportunity for them to be outdoors in a classroom setting for hands-on, science-based activities, it would enhance their learning experience, especially with the SOL curriculum.”

During the program, students will get to explore the biodiversity of the region, develop research projects and learn new outdoor skills.

“We may take the students to Skulls Gap, Elk Garden and Whitetop for field trips,” said Benish.

Students may monitor dragonflies in the wetlands, count species of hawks flying over Whitetop Mountain and snorkel in Laurel Creek to document insects and fish.

“Our goal is to have hands-on projects that are cumulative so that each day is part of a layer project. We will do citizen science projects with the kids,” she said.

Students choose an organism to study, ask questions about its appearance and structures, and attempt to answer them through deeper observation.

Citizen science projects are activities sponsored by organizations so non-scientists can contribute to scientific research.

“Most people don’t realize that dragonflies migrate. So we may go to wetland areas to monitor the five species of dragonflies that migrate from our area. We might be able to track the species we have and see if we can follow a pattern,” the program manager said.

“I think it’s important for the students to be outdoors and engaged in their environment,” Benish said.

“Our mission is to inspire curiosity, discovery and stewardship through the wonders of the Blue Ridge.

“So if we get our youth — even our adults — outside exploring and sharing that information, then they become more comfortable with nature. They begin to love nature. And when you love something, you’re much more liable to take care of it,” she added.

Benish said the program is also designed to attract young people to the study of nature and the environment, drawing them to explore careers in biology, environmental science, geography and geology.

“If kids are not exposed to things, they don’t become aware of what they might like. That’s why we tap into lots of different things — bugs, trees, flowers and fish.

“Introducing the students to a whole new world opens up lots of avenues for them to explore later,” she said.

The first session began Sept. 2 and will conclude Oct. 7, followed by a second session from Oct. 14 to Nov. 18. Enrollment is limited to 13 students for each session.

Tuition cost is $210, but prices have been reduced for late registrations. Tuition will be reduced each week by $35 for children who join the program late.

The fee includes all instruction, transportation during the program if necessary, materials and supplies. Parents are responsible for face masks, snacks and lunch.

Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at

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