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The Outdoor Classroom Provides Plenty of Experiential Learning

Textbooks are no substitute for the real thing, and the Upper St. Clair-based organization is helping young and old alike explore their world firsthand.

Let’s test your knowledge.

What is the difference between a beetle and a true bug? (Volkswagen-related answers don’t count.)

A head-scratcher, huh? Well, some folks who are a whole lot younger than you know the answer, thanks to the Outdoor Classroom in Upper St. Clair.

More specifically, thanks to Amy Bianco, an Outdoor Classroom staff member who conducted a Talk ’n’ Walk program Sunday on the subject of insects. She provided plenty of information during the first half before taking participants on a hike to find examples from the animal kingdom’s most species-rich class of creatures.

If you’re not familiar with the Outdoor Classroom, it’s near the Community and Recreation Center at Boyce Mayview Park. In fact, the classroom predates the rec center, having been established nearly a decade ago as the Regional Environmental Education Center.

“Regional” is the key word here: The Outdoor Classroom receives part of the money to make it work through the Allegheny County Regional Asset District’s support of Boyce Mayview Park. And as such, people from all over the area – that includes Washington County – are encouraged to check out the classroom’s programs.

“There’s no other environmental center south of the city,” explains Jessica Kester, Outdoor Classroom program manager.

Through everything from social media to word of mouth, she and other staff members do a good job of spreading the news about the classroom.

“But a lot of people just find us by accident,” Kester admits. “They’ll start driving around and they’ll see us standing out here for program check-in, and they’ll wonder what it is.”

They’ll soon learn, along the lines of what Outdoor Classroom past chairman Kenneth Pasterak recently told Upper St. Clair commissioners:

“Studies are showing a relationship between outdoor activity and improved behavior, academic performance and health,” Pasterak said. “So our purpose as an organization is to get kids and adults outdoors, realize the assets of Boyce Mayview Park and provide experiential learning programs, which are programs that involve inquiry and exploration.”

In other words, living a certain subject is much more interesting than reading about it in a book.

And so youngsters were enthralled during an early August program when herpatologist – that’s a person who studies reptiles and amphibians – April Claus punctuated her presentation by bringing out a corn snake.

Maybe their parents weren’t as enthralled, but the kids couldn’t wait to feel the friendly serpent’s smooth, leathery skin for themselves.

Claus, who works at the Fern Hollow Nature Center in Sewickley, also provided plenty of interesting facts for the older folks in attendance.

Ever wonder how those big salamanders called hellbenders got their name? Back in the day, apparently, they were observed in the water, their bodies bent, their heads pointing toward “H-E-double hockey sticks,” as Claus G-rated it.

The Outdoor Classroom offers programs throughout the year.

“One of our most popular programs is the Moonstruck Hike,” said Kester. “We walk under the full moon every month, and we’ve had as many as 90 people out for one hike. But if you come on a winter night, it could be just one or two families, and it’s really personal. And then you get to see how pretty the park is in the winter.”

Programs also are offered for Boy and Girl Scouts, special-needs children and, through outreach, people who are unable to visit personally.

To continue to offer programs, the Outdoor Classroom needs sufficient financial resources.

“Program income cannot and will never provide all the funds we need to operate,” Pasterak said. “This is a reality of nonprofit organizations.”

Upper St. Clair Township has provided financial support, and he said the organization works closely with USC School District to “deliver the same impact and somehow bring the cost down.”

“We’re always looking for board members who can bring in skill sets and funding experiences,” Pasterak said—particularly community members who have experience in writing grant proposals.

In the meantime, those whose curiosity has been piqued by the Outdoor Classroom can share this bit of knowledge:

True bugs have X-shaped markings on their backs, while beetles have straight lines.

Thanks, Amy!

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