Tacoma kids are on the hunt for wildlife – and science – in the Pack Forest near Mount Rainier

It’s the kind of scene that sends teachers’ hearts soaring.

Three Tacoma middle school girls are on their hands and knees trying to unearth signs of animal life in the Charles L. Pack Experimental Forest, the living laboratory just outside Mount Rainier National Park that’s owned and managed by the University of Washington.

Farther down the forest’s Trail of the Giants, the girls’ Bryant Montessori School classmates are – literally – getting their arms around the size of old growth as they learn to measure a tree’s breadth.

“Make observations,” coaches Ryan Weisberg, a staff member at Mount Rainier Institute, a joint educational project of the university and the park. “If you notice something, write it down.”

That’s great advice for the budding scientists, says Bryant science teacher Wynne Brown.

“This is cutting edge,” she says. “Environmental education, when I started 20 years ago, was more ‘telling’ than ‘doing.’ ”

But learning science, especially, is a hands-on process. And learning while engaging in physical activity checks all the age-appropriate developmental boxes of these sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

“That’s what makes this so powerful,” Brown says.

Bryant, one of two Montessori schools run by Tacoma Public Schools, helped kick off this first season at the Mount Rainier Institute.

While they’re out exploring the 4,300-acre forest near Eatonville, kids stay three nights in cabins – part of the forest’s conference facilities. They are busy from breakfast time until after dinner, when activities include a night hike, learning games and more.

Last week’s first group of 47 students was followed this week by another group from Bryant. Students from Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma are also scheduled to visit the Pack Forest this fall, as are students from Federal Way and Yakima.

Funding for this initial program year comes from a variety of sources: the national park, Pack Forest, the nonprofit Washington’s National Park Fund and the Russell Family Foundation. Schools, school fundraisers and individual families also contribute to the cost of student stays; some tuition assistance is available for children who can’t afford to pay.

Institute director John Hayes said the projected first-year budget for the institute is $440,000.

In the Pack Forest, students research habitat and prepare for group presentations. They are handed tools to measure and calculate what they find in the forest – a clinometer, for example, to gauge the height of trees.

One group is asked to explore whether wolverines might occupy the Pack Forest.

A young scientist records her hypothesis in her journal: “I think they eat meat,” she writes, “because of their claws.

Sixth-grader Alanah Jordan eagerly takes the lead in excavating and exploring a sinkhole at the base of a tree, along with seventh-grader Skyler Bowen-Laudenslager and seventh-grader Kyanna Stewart. They explain that they’re searching for animal tracks and scat (feces).

“Ah, there’s scat down there!” says an excited Skyler.

“Who has the ‘scats and tracks’ book?” Alanah and Skyler both cry out.

Spoiler alert:

Seventh-grader Cyrus Samuel said that, based on his research, he suspects wolverines wouldn’t lodge in this part of the Pack Forest.

“First,” he said, “wolverines rarely climb trees.” And this spot is thick with trees.

“Second, they like higher elevations — the alpine and subalpine areas,” he adds. “We are in the forest life zone.”

As part of the institute program, students also spend time at Longmire and Paradise at Mount Rainier. For at least one of the students in this Bryant group, it was her first trip to Paradise.

Instructors find “teachable moments,” even in a bag of potato chips.

As students headed up the mountain to experience the national park, many felt their ears pop, Brown said. At the same time, their potato chip bags expanded. Teachers explained that as the air pressure dropped during their bus trip, air molecules inside the bags moved around and made the chip bags inflate.

Sixth-grader James Souve said he found nature to be full of surprises.

“If it was raining right now,” he says as he stops to chat under the heavy forest canopy. “The trees would cover us.”

Maybe the wolverines like to stay dry?