The San Joaquin County Office of Education announced a new home for the Science Camp outdoor education program open to fifth and sixth grade students in the county.

Sky Mountain in Placer County will now host Science Camp beginning in the 2021-22 school year, replacing Jones Gulch in the Santa Cruz mountains. Jones Gulch, through a contract with the YMCA, had been the Science Camp home for more than 60 years.

The land for Sky Mountain comes to the county office of education through a donation by Pacific Gas &Electric Co. The county office of education announced the new site in a new release on Jan. 20. saying the new 62.68-acre-parcel will allow the flexibility to have programs for students of all ages throughout the year.

Troy Brown, San Joaquin County Office of Education associate superintendent, said the acquisition will expand environmental literacy among local students as it contributes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum.

Even in the new location Brown expects the new science camp will provide the same experience for fifth- and sixth-grade students as it did for their parents.

“Science camp curriculum may change a little bit because we’re in the mountains and we’re by a lake and things like that, and a different system up there, but (we are) still building similar memories for kids.”

During a school year the county typically has about 4,500 fifth and sixth grade students in public, private and parochial schools, along with 700 teachers and high school cabin leaders, attend the five-day, four-night program.

About 1,200 Tracy area students from the Tracy Unified, Jefferson and New Jerusalem school districts take part in science camp each year.

The outdoor education program has students explore the environment outside the classroom, touching on topics that include natural resources and explore diverse ecosystems and habitats.

Owning its own camp gives the office of education a greater degree of flexibility to offer programs at the site, and opens up the possibility of having summer and winter camps.

“There could be a high school biology class or engineering class … be able to go up there for a camp and have the opportunity to support what they are working on in the classroom,” Brown said. “It gives us the opportunity to have professional development for staff as well, and how exciting would that be?”

“It allows us some flexibility even in timing,” he added. “A five-day camp doesn’t have to be the only answer now. Some camps could be two to three days but still delivering the outdoor experiences.”

The county office of education is working on renovating the existing facilities and designing a new curriculum specific to the unique ecosystem that aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards and connects with California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts.

“Students will learn about different ecosystems and how watersheds are connected. Snow is connected to rivers, rivers are connected to the Delta in San Joaquin County, and the Delta is connected to the ocean,” county education office STEM Director Annie Cunial said in a written statement.

“Year-round activities will range from canoeing and archery in the summer to snowshoeing in the winter. These activities will enhance students’ experiences as they learn about the history of the land from the Native American tribes to early California explorers, as well as flora, hydroelectric dams, conifer forests, wildlife, industries, careers, and more.”

Situated at the top of the North Fork of the American River in the Sierra Nevada Tahoe National Forest, Sky Mountain includes cabins, a gymnasium, a lodge and other facilities surrounded by a forest and lake.

Preexisting infrastructure, capital assets, and $2.5 million to support code compliance and infrastructure reinforcement were donated by the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council.

In 2016, the county office of education applied to become a grantee of the property through the Stewardship Council, which oversees more than 140,000 acres of watershed lands owned by PG&E co. to make sure they are used to benefit California residents.

The education office will work with the Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and enhancing wildlife habitat, which will hold the conservation easement.

The Wildlife Heritage Foundation will oversee the protection of the ecological habitat and ensure the appropriate use of the site.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic the Science Camp program was not held this year and is scheduled to resume in the 2021-2022 school year. Plans and updates for Sky Mountain will not be available until that school year begins.

Brown said giving kids the opportunity to see the beauty of nature can be life-changing.

“I think those outdoor experiences change kid’s lives for the better. They see outside of our normal every-day in the city or wherever we live and we get to experience nature,” Brown said. “I think it helps our students and our families think differently about the environment and about who they are, and for some of these kids it’s going to be that ‘Oh my gosh! Nature and planet earth is that beautiful.’ It’s just those moments where we get to see what kids feel and see when they experience the beauty of nature.”

The return of science camp in the 2021-22 school year will look different as there could be a reduced program as students return after the COVID-19 restrictions. Brown said the county STEM department is currently working on the program for science camp when it returns.

• Contact Glenn Moore at gmoore@tracypress.com or 830-4252.

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