Fifth-grader Andrea Rodriguez first heard about the Young Environmental Stewards (YES) program when she saw Libby Foster launching film canisters off the blacktop outside her elementary school.
Foster, the YES program coordinator, was showing the students how different temperatures of water affected the jet propulsion system she had made for these tiny missiles.
Rodriguez was impressed by the experiment, and she decided to sign up to learn more through the new program, which is sponsored by the Urban League of the Pikes Peak Region in conjunction with the Catamount Institute.
The fifth-grader, a science buff, just can't get enough. "I like science a lot, and we only get to do science for a little bit at school," she said.
The YES program recently was awarded "Best New Program" from the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education. It started off as a pilot program last year designed to provide learning opportunities about science and the environment to mostly minority and under-served youths in the Colorado Springs area.
The program, in which the Catamount Institute provides the curriculum and the Urban League provides its technical center, currently includes about 60 students, most of them recommended by their regular classroom teachers. They meet after school for three hours every other week for a full school year.
Rodriguez says that, so far, the lessons have been fun and she particularly likes the field trips. One recent experiment, she noted, involved testing the elasticity of rubber bands by stretching them to various lengths along a ruler, shooting them across the room, and graphing the results.
"In school it's just serious learning," she explained. "In here, we have fun when we're learning; it doesn't even seem like we're learning."
David Shurna, associate executive director of the Catamount Institute, said the YES staff often works with students who don't do well in a traditional classroom.
"Last Monday," he said, "one kid didn't show up because he was suspended from school. Another kid had been placed in a juvenile detention center for a couple days."
However, Shurna explained that tough kids often do better learning outside rather than stuck at a desk all day. "There's a disconnect between the way that their teachers will experience them in a classroom, and the way that we experience them in an outdoor setting," he said.
Ninth-grader Heather Bailey, a mentor for the YES program, works with a group of 15 students from Adams Elementary School. Her goal, she says, is to "teach them, one, about science ... and how they can coexist with each other."
As the program develops, the Catamount Institute hopes to use its 177-acre plot on the north side of Pikes Peak as an educational element. The area will eventually be turned into a "sustainable field campus," designed to process all its own waste internally. When completed, it will show kids what a sustainable community might look like.
Currently, students are often taken on field trips to study their local natural environment. Last week, they visited Garden of the Gods to learn about predator-prey relationships.
During the second half of the year, students will choose their own "service project" to work on. The projects are intended to help students contribute to their community in a way that emphasizes the things they've been learning. For example, a good project might be the construction of a very low water use "Xeriscape garden," according to Shurna.
Jim Owens, technology manager at the Urban League, said it's important to keep kids involved in their community even after their year with YES is over. Owens hopes that students will stay involved in YES during high school and college in order to serve as mentors for the younger participants.
Shurna said that program organizers plan to embrace a different overarching theme each year. Last year's focus, for example, was on water and water cycles in the Pikes Peak region. This year's emphasis, he said, is "diversity in our social and natural communities, and why that's important."
"We're not just talking about diversity of animals and plants, we're talking about diversity of cultures and races," he said.