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Mount Prospect Academy students learn from the seas, skies, and summits



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A Mount Prospect Academy student takes in the scenic view from atop Mt. Kearsarge. (Courtesy Photo) (click for larger version)
August 24, 2018
PLYMOUTH — Whether they were examining coastal tide pools in Rye or studying geology and cleaning up litter at Bretton Woods Ski Resort this month Mount Prospect Academy students learned mountains of information while staying active outside.

MPA science instructor, Karen McAlpine, regularly immerses students in nature while teaching. MPA students often benefit from an outdoor learning environment because they are non-traditional learners who have difficulty succeeding in four-walled classroom environments, McAlpine said.

Many MPA students can be clinically identified as emotionally handicapped, learning disabled, autistic, or other health impaired. The academy also serves students with psychiatric and judicial issues.

"These students have a lot of strengths, it's just that they often don't get to positive reinforcements in a traditional classroom setting," McAlpine said. "When they get outside, no one is telling them to sit down and be quiet. Each kid can learn at their own pace, and some students will even mentor others."

Science students showcased their academic abilities by earning first place for presentation in the 2017 SeaPerch Competition. SeaPerch is a robotics competition where students build underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles while following a science and marine engineering curriculum. This June, McAlpine's team earned 24th out 50 in the competition.

"If you can present something to MPA students with a variety of different methods, then they get excited about it and surprise themselves with just how smart and capable they really are," McAlpine added.

August adventures

McAlpine began this month by taking her class to explore Bretton Woods Ski Resort. Students rode chairlifts up the mountain, and then they walked about a mile to the summit of West Peak. Once at the summit, students noticed trash on the ground. The classmates worked together and rid the summit of litter, obtaining an entire grocery bag full of crushed cans, bottles, and miscellaneous pieces of trash, McAlpine said.

The next day, the class visited Quechee, Vt., and they saw a live presentation on raptors at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. Students learned the differences between falcons, hawks, and owls. After the presentation, McAlpine's class toured the institute's raptor enclosures seeing bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, Harrison and red-tailed hawks, a cooper's hawk, kestrels, ravens, barred owls, screech owls, snowy owls, and turkey vultures.

Next, they stopped at an exhibit which showed the link between dinosaurs and birds. Before leaving the center, the group visited the institute's hospital for birds and its reptile habitats.

After learning about animals that inhabit the sky, students shifted to studying creatures which dwell in the sea. On Aug. 8, the class traveled to Rye, NH and explored coastal tide pools. The group found rock crabs, mud crabs, green crabs, sea urchins, snails, and lobsters. The trip was part of the class's summer marine science curriculum.

"A lot of my students are extremely visual and tactile learners, so if there's an example that they can see in real life and touch, they are more likely to absorb information and retain it," she said. "Things that we might take for granted, like crabs and snails on the beach, they're completely fascinated by."

McAlpine added that she has taken at least 25 students to the ocean who have never been there before.

She remembers a student who sat on a rock for hours to watch the tide change during a class camping trip to Hermit Island in Maine.

"He didn't really understand tide change from our classroom discussion," McAlpine said. "He was completely amazed by observing it in real life and then understood how the moon could cause ocean waters to rise and fall."

The day after exploring coastal tide pools in Rye, the students ventured to a summit hiking to the fire tower on top of Mt. Kearsarge. On hikes she teaches plant and animal identification, geology, Leave No Trace philosophies, meteorology, and history regarding the Appalachian Trail system.

"All of the students supported each other, and we made it to the top of Mt. Kearsarge in good time," McAlpine added.

And remember that live presentation on raptors in Vermont? At the summit of Mt. Kearsarge, a student correctly identified the bird that was circling above the class as a peregrine falcon.

"It completely floored us!" McAlpine said. "We were in the fire tower, and then he called, 'Look! Look! It's a peregrine!' And he got it right, it was a peregrine falcon!"

McAlpine said moments like that validate why she teaches. Seeing a student apply what he learned keeps McAlpine and her team searching for new lessons to expose the students to. She added that the course is only possible because of the significant teamwork between her and the faculty members who support the class daily.

"You have to be in the classroom sometimes, but if you can give students a little bit more experience outside of that, then they can get more excited about certain subjects," she said. "After a real-world experience, they may be more willing to sit through classroom lectures on those topics, and maybe even pursue a career in that field."

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