Lessons Where the Wild Things Are

Michele Karnbach, resource assistant at the Phoebe Hall Knipling Outdoor Laboratory in Fauquier County, leads fifth-graders on a stream study.
Michele Karnbach, resource assistant at the Phoebe Hall Knipling Outdoor Laboratory in Fauquier County, leads fifth-graders on a stream study. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 23, 2005

Ten-year-old Annovis Ngo scrambled out of a stream and up some rocks, her voice breathy, her eyes shining.

"Oh, my gosh, there's so much over there," she said as she and a partner emerged brandishing a small net full of pebbles and water fauna. "There's a lot of those bug thingies!"

Another girl rushed up with a net containing a crayfish and a salamander and proudly placed them in a small plastic tank beside the stream.

"Hey, will you keep these as pets?" asked Alejandra Fernandez, 10, squatting to watch the critters crawl in the dappled sunlight of the early fall day.

In their search for life in the stream, Annovis, Alejandra and their classmates from Carlin Springs Elementary School in Arlington County were taking part in a 38-year-old tradition in which Arlington public school students are transported from their urban environment to rural Virginia for a wilder kind of education.

The adventure takes place just inside Fauquier County, 35 miles west of Arlington, at the Phoebe Hall Knipling Outdoor Laboratory, a 211-acre nature center in the Pond Mountains. There, far from the tract houses and traffic lights they're used to, students get to know a landscape with hickory oak forests, a spring-fed stream, a small lake and five miles of hiking trails.

The center is owned by the nonprofit Arlington Outdoor Education Association, which lets the Arlington public school system use the land. The system pays $164,000 a year for three full-time staff members and some maintenance and $66,000 for transportation; additional maintenance and other expenses are paid by the association, which takes in about $70,000 a year in donations and grants.

The lab, which is open to Arlington public school students and to Scout troops from the county, is named for Phoebe Hall Knipling, an Arlington teacher who was the first woman in Virginia to be a school district's science supervisor. She traveled around the state with high school science students on field study trips, and in the late 1960s she bought the land that became the outdoor lab.

"Things were getting more urban in Arlington," said Anthony Adamovich, the lab's assistant director. "She had a vision for Arlington kids."

Almost every school day, third-, fifth-, sixth- or seventh-grade students can be found taking in the tall trees and fresh air, with the crunch of gravel underfoot. A few brown shingle structures house the administrative center and animal lab, but most of the learning -- and sleeping and eating -- is done outdoors. The lab provides platform tents, and the students bring their own sleeping bags.

Sixth-graders come to do a survival game, in which they build shelters and fires and boil water to drink. High school science students come to collect data for their laboratory experiments; students in Washington-Lee's International Baccalaureate program use the lab to integrate their studies of chemistry, biology and environmental systems. There are also weeklong camps in the summer for fourth- through eighth-graders.

During the school year, most fifth-graders come for an overnight stay.

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