At a hilly farm in Fauquier County, four children were huddled around a strip of mud in the pouring rain, two of them with their sweat shirt hoods pulled tight against the downpour. At the center of the group was their guide for the morning, Traci Hope, an animated 35-year-old with sopping wet pigtails.
The children saw in the mud something they had been looking for: animal tracks. Hope pointed out the heart-shape prints of deer hoofs and the indentation of a raccoon's long claws. There were also deep imprints from a different type of claw, suggesting a fox might have passed through. Hope told the children that if they could identify some fox scat, they could be sure of it. Muffled snickers followed.
"I know, I know," she said. "I know too much about scat."
Throughout the day, the children and their friends in the Boys and Girls Club of Fauquier County would learn about scat. They would learn about animals and plants. They would learn about the history of the farm -- the onetime home of a son of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall -- and about the history of the Manahoac Indians who once lived on the land. The students would later retreat to a state-of-the-art classroom fit more for the suits and ties of executives at a training session than the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches of schoolchildren. There they would use computers to publish colorful newsletters about all they had learned.
At Learning Tree Farms, a 2,000-acre farm and wildlife sanctuary near Delaplane, a combination of hands-on experience, education and technology draws students from across Northern Virginia, including Prince William, Fauquier, Loudoun and Fairfax counties, for free field trips. The farm began offering archaeology programs for students in 1998 and has since launched programs focused on nature, Virginia frontier life, environmental studies, exploration and the Civil War. About 8,000 students, from fourth-graders to high school seniors, have visited this year.
The farm takes its name from the business enterprises of its owner, David C. Collins, chief executive of Learning Tree International, a technology training firm whose U.S. headquarters is in Reston. The farm's educational programs are funded by two nonprofit organizations with which Collins is involved: the Pegasus Foundation, an environmental group, and Friends of the Hollow, an organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the boyhood home of Chief Justice Marshall, which is near the farm.
Instructors and others at the farm say they want to inspire children to achieve through education. They do so using the Virginia Standards of Learning as guidelines for the curriculum of each program. The keys to all of the programs, they say, are activity and motivation.
"They're engaged from the minute they come off the bus," said Broni Lambelet, who markets the farm's educational programs and is also chairman of the Fauquier County School Board. "Here they are told, 'Try this, do this, take a chance.' "
Shortly after hopping off the bus and attending orientation, the Boys and Girls Club members, ages 8 to 14, tramped down a gravel path and through the woods. Students with Hope, the guide, stopped periodically and took pictures using one of the farm's digital cameras. They learned to use a compass for a scavenger hunt. At a mock Indian village, they explored a wigwam. To learn survival skills, they built a lean-to.
Three of the students giggled and eagerly answered Hope's questions the entire way. But Hope appeared concerned that one student, Daniel Keen, 14, was disengaged. She playfully ribbed him for displaying little if any enthusiasm.
But when asked about the field trip, as Hope and the other students practiced tossing ersatz spears, Daniel didn't hesitate to register his approval. He had been to the farm a few other times.
"They always have new stuff to do. They usually tell you new stuff when you're here," he said. "We usually go to King's Dominion or go swimming," he added about other field trips he has taken. "We never get to do things like this."
By the time Daniel and Hope's group and another reached Turtle Pond, the students had mud smudged on their foreheads and caked onto their shoes. But they were eager to net something, until they netted something: more mud, from the bottom of the pond.
"Oh, that's nasty!"
"Mud is not right, man!"
They eventually rounded up a handful of tadpoles and other creatures.
Back in the classroom, instructor Linda McCarthy guided students through the process of using software to publish their newsletters, replete with information on what they had learned and the photos they had taken.
McCarthy said she has students come in without any computer skills. But after they have returned a few times -- and many come back frequently -- they're pros.
"After two or three visits, they're all over it," McCarthy said. "That's how you know there's achievement."
Lambelet and the curriculum director at Learning Tree, Thad Cardine, said they are developing programs on law, astronomy and physical science. They said they want to keep the offerings fresh. They hope students will remain as interested as they have been so far.
"We motivate them through success," Cardine said.