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Grand Canyon Ecology Trek Transforms Students as they Learn Lessons in Science, Social Studies, and Mathematics while Testing Physical Limits and Overcoming Fears

Grand Canyon Ecology Trek Transforms Students as they Learn Lessons in Science, Social Studies, and Mathematics while Testing Physical Limits and Overcoming Fears


How do you get middle school students engaged in their study of science, social studies, mathematics, and writing? For 7th grade students at Kennedy Middle School and McKinley Institute of Technology (MIT) in Redwood City School District (RCSD), the Grand Canyon becomes their classroom for 10 days each spring. Students go off the grid while they explore the evolution of life on earth through geological layers, log their observations in their daily journals, and create group skits to demonstrate what they have learned.

It might seem that the trip was designed to remove modern students from the distractions of technology, but in fact, the trip is a tradition that goes back 40 years-- well before the time that most students carried an electronic device in their pocket. Since 1978, 70-90 students have been selected each year to participate in the trip based on their academic standing, good behavior, teacher input, and their fitness ability. Originally designed by a small group of educators and community volunteers to help students see the value in helping each other and protecting the environment, the trip has evolved into an experience that has transformed thousands of local students over the years and has now earned a Kent Award from the San Mateo County School Boards Association (SMCSBA).

“We are excited and honored that Kennedy is being honored for a school tradition that many people often refer to as a rite of passage for Kennedy students,” says Kennedy Middle School Principal Sabrina Adler. “This Award is dedicated to all of the volunteers over the years who have contributed thousands of hours to make this trip possible.”

Ms. Adler explains that this trip “goes far beyond the science, geography, and writing lessons that students learn.” She says that the trip “pushes students out of their comfort zones and teaches them lessons and skills that they can utilize in the future. Students learn determination, responsibility, leadership, communication skills, compassion, and friendship. As no electronic devices are permitted, which is unusual in this day and age, this is an opportunity for students to learn to appreciate the beauty and calmness of nature.” 

“The biggest challenge for our students is the unknown,” said Keith Kadera, former organizer of the trip, who first volunteered as a chaperone in 2002 and recently retired from the school district. “ This may be their first time away from home, or it may be the first time they have slept on the ground, done something physical such as a 10-mile hike with camping gear, or spent that much time with their classmates. Combine that with the learning environment of not just teaching science and history, but life skills as well. It is transformative to everyone who participates, including the volunteers!” 

Kadera added that 15-18 adult volunteers are on duty 24 hours a day during the trip to guide the students and make sure they are safe.


Students and Chaperones in the Kennedy Grand Canyon Ecology Trek

Students depart for the trip early on a Wednesday morning and spend the first night in a motel in Needles, CA, and arrive at the Grand Canyon early the following afternoon. During first two days, students begin to work together as groups learning from the park rangers as well as a day trip to lookout spots along the canyon. They then prepare for their second destination, Havasu Falls, and learn about hiking, hydration, and always utilizing the “buddy system” to help their fellow students. During the hike down to Havasu Falls and during the hike back up three days later, students carry their own backpack, sleeping bag, and food. One student commented, “I never thought I could walk 11 miles, let alone carry a backpack, sleeping bag, cooking utensils, and some pots!” Another said, “I really was afraid of the hike but now that we are down below and see what beauty the canyon provides, I understand why you encouraged us to keep going. I just want to stay and enjoy this as long as we can!"

Once down below, further education is provided by teachers and local Supai Indians, who share the lifestyle of the “people of the blue/green water.” 

During the trip, each student carries a journal that they must complete over the course of the ten days. The journals contain stories, mathematics equations, science lessons, word puzzles, and astronomy lessons that take advantage of the thousands of stars that they will see each night. While camping at Havasu Falls, the students are assigned to a cook group. 

Each person in the cook group is assigned a duty and each duty rotates daily. The students quickly learn that all of the duties must be accomplished in order for their team to be successful.

The students work, play, and learn during their three-day stay at Havasu Falls and before they are ready to go home, it's time to make the 11-mile uphill trek out of the canyon. Many of the students are convinced that they will not be able to complete the hike out, but with the support of the chaperones and fellow students, all of them make it back up to the rim and feel the pride of accomplishment. Students are honored for their accomplishments, creativity, and good citizenship at a special awards night on the last evening of the trip.

Preparation for the trip begins many months beforehand, when students and their parents gather for a general information meeting. Three months before  departure, selected students take part in a practice hike from Kennedy Middle School to Cañada College, an uphill trek of approximately three miles. This gives the students an idea of the physical requirements needed for the trip.

“Participating students consistently show an increased maturity level upon their return and continuing into their 8th grade year,” said Kennedy Principal Sabrina Adler. “These students also become classroom and school leaders at their school sites and they also bring those skills into high school.”

The cost of the trip is $700 per student, which is defrayed by fundraising in the months leading up to the event. One of the key goals is to make trip possible for all students. The adult chaperones pay their own costs and are asked to make a five-year commitment; many have served for 10 years or longer.

The value of the trip is summed up well in the reflection of this student, who participated last year: “The whole experience was amazing. We learned how to carry ourselves not only in nature, but in real life as well, especially since the hikes were mentally and physically draining. We got to spend time with friends and got to know our friends and classmates better. To this day, in 8th grade, we still talk about those memories."

The Kent Awards are presented by the San Mateo County School Boards Association to outstanding and innovative programs either in the classroom or outside the classroom as well as district-wide programs. Applicants must demonstrate their programs promote student success, employ a high degree of creativity, and demonstrate transferability. Named after past San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools, J. Russell Kent, SMCSBA initiated the program during the 1980-81 school year.