Not your average school day in Mammoth Lakes

Outdoor Science Education Program
Supported by donors, the Outdoor Science Education Program has connected thousands of children with nature at the NRS’s Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserves. Image: Lobsang Wangdu/NRS

From UC Santa Barbara

Mammoth Lakes is a resort town in Mono County in the Eastern Sierra just south of Yosemite. While its population swells during tourist season, just over 8,000 residents live in the remote area year-round. For 2,000 elementary school children each year, UC Santa Barbara’s Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserves’ (VESR) Outdoor Science Education Program provides an opportunity to learn about science and nature. Thanks to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area’s years of philanthropic support for the Outdoor Science Education Program, a generation of children has grown up with special insight into the natural world. 

The partnership to sustain the Outdoor Science Education Program with donor support began in 2004 with the vision of then-Mammoth Mountain Ski Area CEO Rusty Gregory (currently Alterra Mountain Company CEO), long-time VESR supporters Kate and Paul Page, and Dan Dawson, the former director of VESR.

“Fifteen years ago, Mammoth Mountain really saw the value in having the University of California not only affiliated with them and the town, but as public service for this whole area,” said Carol Blanchette, current VESR Director. “Out here, there are no science centers, no college campuses. A lot of the families and the kids that live in this area are from populations that are underrepresented in the sciences and, due to the remote nature of life in Mono and Inyo counties, they don’t have the same level of opportunities as they would if they lived in other, more urban areas.” 

The Outdoor Science Education Program is now a familiar retreat for elementary school students from the region who visit every year from kindergarten through sixth grade. Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserves consist of two separate Reserves, Valentine Camp and the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL), located approximately eight miles apart.

VESR is one of 41 field research stations within the University of California Natural Reserve System. In a region with few institutions of higher learning, Valentine Camp and SNARL provide essential laboratory and support facilities for research and teaching, as well as access to natural environments for local community engagement in science and stewardship. 

Students visit SNARL for spring field trips and Valentine Camp for fall field trips. The Outdoor Science Education Program provides grade-specific lessons and activities aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards and coordinated with their in-school curriculum. At Valentine Camp and SNARL, students might birdwatch, create scientific reactions, sketch botanical illustrations, or learn how Native Americans stewarded the land. In summer, VESR hosts weeklong outdoor science programs for K-12 children at both reserve sites.

“Many kids have never experienced hiking through a pristine forest, or seen a waterfall,” said Blanchette. ”Their eyes are wide open when they see these places. And because we get these kids back year after year for six years in a row, we get to know them and can watch them open up in different ways.”

The financial support provided by Mammoth Mountain has allowed VESR to grow the Outdoor Science Education Program over time and serve a much-needed role in providing outdoor learning experiences for Eastern Sierra kids. The quality of these programs, as well as the positive impacts they have had on students, have inspired a collective of local donors called the Valentine Reserve Fund, chaired by Rusty Gregory. He and Mammoth Mountain help lead a community of philanthropy for Reserve supporters, a creative partnership that is more than the sum of their financial giving. 

“Mammoth Mountain sees the importance of supporting groups of like-minded community members that are committed to supporting VESR here in Mammoth,” said Mark Brownlie, former president and COO of Mammoth Mountain and current COO, Mountain Division, of Alterra Mountain Company. “We understand the need to support the educational efforts and continue to promote Valentine Camp and SNARL as valuable assets to our community and beyond. Together, we hope to foster new leaders to ensure the work continues for many generations to come.” 

Whether they go on to a career in science or are inspired by stepping outside their comfort zones, students experience lifelong benefits from outdoor education at VESR.

“The teachers in the Outdoor Science Education Program still get letters from kids — and the parents of kids — who have been inspired by these outdoor learning experiences in their youth, and have gone on to college and beyond,” said Carol. 

The Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserves are working towards racial equity through the Outdoor Science Education Program. Recently, Fabiola Sanchez has joined the team to coordinate outreach with the local Hispanic community. She provides Spanish translation and assists in teaching several of the dual language programs during summer. VESR hopes to recruit more teachers who reflect the diversity of the local region. Program leaders also have a vision to expand the field trip programs to middle school and perhaps even high school. This reflects Mammoth Mountain’s and VESR’s shared commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

“Mammoth Mountain provides an opportunity for students to do something completely different from their normal school day,” said Carol. “They may not go into a career in science, but they will have a much deeper awareness and an appreciation of the environment, and that sticks with them for a long time.” 

In addition to the Outdoor Science Education Program, VESR provides facilities, programs, and expertise to over 3,500 researchers, educators, and students from Eastern California and across the globe.

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