What’s the Deal with Outdoor Science School or Science Camp

Silhouettes children and parent walking with backpacks. Time to go travel together.

Outdoor Science School Will Always Hold a Very Special Place in My Heart.  It is Where I Found My Counselor Legs, and Realized the Life-Changing Benefits of Strong Camp Communities Many Years Ago.  

Outdoor Science School, or OSS, is a week-long residential science camp for kids in the 5th and 6th grades.  It is run by either the camp or an outside company and is treated as an extension of the kids traditional school for the week.

It offers the kids a unique opportunity to learn their outdoor sciences in the best classroom possible: the Great Outdoors.  They will also participate in traditional camp activities such as campfire, skit night, hiking, and group games.

This once-in-a-lifetime learning experience for your kids offers something very unique that is becoming more and more rare in the classroom these days – engaging and interactive Science Lab Time.

I thoroughly enjoyed my environmental sciences back in the day, and a big part of this joy can be credited to the lab time.  This is where you truly get to see the science translated in ways where it becomes relatable and applicable to every part of our lives.

Learning science without proper lab time to reinforce the lessons would be like learning to read music without ever touching a musical instrument.  At a certain point, the learning will plateau and become completely inhibited.

Outdoor Science School was my very first time working this kind of job with kids and the outdoors.  A 25-week commitment to live in the mountains, teach outdoor science and guide kids through their first overnight camp experiences.  I loved my early days as an OSS instructor.

But that first day, I remember feeling veeery nervous.  I can still remember those first-day work jitters as all of us new instructors were walking down to the auditorium building and hearing all of the kids.  It sounded exactly like what it was, a couple hundred super excited kids waiting eagerly to be divided into their cabin groups.

And all of a sudden, training was over and I was hoping I was truly ready.

The OSS structure and staffing are different from the rest of the kids camp types, as it carries with it a specifically defined curriculum standard in both content and delivery.  This standard is typically either Common Core or Next Generation Science Standards but can vary depending on the state.

There are currently 42 states that operate through the Common Core Standard.  It is a set of shared goals and expectations for teachers across the country over several subjects.

The science camp organization that is running the OSS program is in most cases, not the actual camp itself.  It is usually operated by an outside organization that is leasing the camp.

The science camp organization will have full control of their own scheduling, curriculum, staffing, training, logistics, and payroll.  And they will also have their own insurance coverage as well.

Happy Campers at outdoor science school

How Long Is Outdoor Science School? And Who Is It For?

Each Outdoor Science School session lasts 4 to 5 days, and the entire season for the staff typically runs from 24 to 28 weeks.  Kids will experience this unique science camp just once in their educational lives, either in the 5th or 6th grades.

For this reason, it is incredibly unique and kids are highly encouraged to make the most of this impacting outdoor experience.

The discipline expectations will be far stricter than other camp types as the kids are expected to act as they would in their traditional classrooms.

OSS participation is ultimately decided on by the school districts, with each district superintendent maintaining final approval.

The school districts will have a long and thorough screening process for the consideration of a new OSS organization.  As a result, the insurance coverage is typically much stronger than the other camp types.

Once a school district commits to a new Outdoor Science School / OSS organization, it is considered a long-term commitment that is expected to last many years and possibly even decades.

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Handy Outdoor Science School Tip for Our Wonderful Camp Parents!

If the school is attending a new camp, this should compel a further question.  What caused the switch?  School districts generally do not cease their relationship with an OSS organization unless a serious incident, that has compromised their kids safety, has occurred.

The decision to switch is ultimately approved by both the school principals and the district superintendent.  They will have zero tolerance for anything that could potentially put their kids at risk.

The legal exposure and risk to the school districts reputation are simply too high to accept anything but the highest standards from the camp or outdoor organization.

Adventuring friends arm in arm at summer camp

Who Are The Outdoor Science School Instructors?

Science Camp Instructors are expected to adhere to a higher standard of teaching and group management as they are both outdoor science instructors and cabin counselors.

These jobs should attract a higher caliber staff than your average summer camp counselor.

The outdoor science school instructors will have experience, or have studied, in the environmental sciences.  They will usually be newly graduated college students, college students on a short sabbatical, or those who are trying to further their teaching experience before they take the big leap into a traditional classroom.

All OSS staff will have to pass background checks through the DOJ and/or FBI (including fingerprinting).

Most Outdoor Science Schools will implement and require some kind of drug screening for all of their staff.  This is usually only conducted at the beginning of the camp season.  All screening should be performed by an independent, specialized outside service.

The Outdoor Science School will also be required to immediately drug screen any staff suspected of being involved in a specific incident with probable cause or any work-related injury.

How Are The Outdoor Science School Instructors Trained?

The training will be delivered within a more intensive and prolonged development process.  The initial training usually lasts 1 to 2 weeks.

But the instructors are expected to continue developing their original chosen subjects as well as to expand to new subject competencies throughout the season.

Once the instructors are a couple of months into the science camp season, they are expected to have learned and been tested in all subjects to achieve full competency.

The instructors need to not only understand the core subject curriculum but also how to deliver and teach it to a group of campers as they are hiking trails.  This requires a number of different skill sets that can be challenging and mentally exhausting at times.

Every instructor remembers their first couple of weeks immediately after training as it can be quite daunting.  You feel like you got suddenly thrown into the deep end.

Of all the kids camp types that I have experienced over my time in the outdoor industry, OSS delivers and maintains the most effective and prolonged training for your kids.

What Are Your Kids Taught at Outdoor Science School?

Kids will be taught the core environmental sciences of wildlife biology, ecology, astronomy, and geology.  The curriculum taught at outdoor science camp is not arbitrary by any means.  What the campers learn that week about the environmental sciences will satisfy the lab component and a good chunk of the yearly teaching requirement for those subjects.

The campers are very lucky to be learning these lessons in an outdoor classroom within a safe and comfortable camp setting. 

Their outdoor experience will be full of interactive labs and activities that are just not possible to deliver in the same way in the traditional classroom.

The lab time, to reinforce the science lessons is the key component of the week as the students will receive very little lab time in their schools.

Labs are critical to understanding and reinforcing the lessons.  They introduce a level of interaction and engagement that go far beyond the textbook.  The kids should be getting tested on everything they learn up at camp soon after they return to their traditional classrooms.

sam teaching at outdoor science school

This is actually a rare picture of me, from years ago, working at an OSS program in California.  

When Is The Traditional Camp Part Of The Week at Outdoor Science School?

The traditional camp activities will usually occur later in the week, once the school curriculum has been completed by all of the kids.  They will feature unplugged activities that are geared towards fun and appreciation of the Great Outdoors.

The traditional camp activities will include camp-wide games played on large fields, 2 to 5-hour group hikes to beautiful natural features (lakes, viewpoints, etc.), and group challenge activities.

These activities may not involve any of the thrilling camp staples such as the ropes course, pool, archery or mountain bikes.  This is due to higher insurance costs and potential legal exposure for the camp or outdoor company.

There should still be a campfire and skit night activity for the kids.

These traditional camp activities are highly important for developing their creative expression, teamwork, and public speaking skills.

To find out more about these unplugged and impacting camp activities.  Check out the recent post, What Are The Traditional Kids Summer Camp Programs.

The OSS organization will also foster their own unique camp traditions based on their own values and mission purpose.

What Can You Do To Prepare Your Kid For Outdoor Science School?

Expected Weather Conditions can Vary WIDELY!

Keep in mind that the Outdoor Science School season coincides directly with the regular school year.  From early September all the way through to late April, schools across the country will be participating in various OSS programs for your kids.

This also covers a range of seasons that can bring forth different weather conditions depending on the location of the camp and the time of year.

A science camp experience in December is much different to a session in April.  The difference can literally be snowy and cold to warm and breezy conditions.  Make sure you are aware of this and prepare your kids clothing accordingly.

Close up of pre-teen friends in a park smiling to camera

Thoroughly Complete The Camp Medical Questionnaire.

The Camp Medical Questionnaire will be a part of every schools registration packet and will ask you to go into specific detail on any serious medical or allergy considerations.

Please be specific, especially in regards to over-the-counter meds.  The Camp Medical Technician would like the full resource of options to treat your kid.

Any over-the-counter med that is not specifically indicated as permissible by the parent might not be able to be given by them.

The Camp Medical Technician is the most important person at Camp in ensuring your kids safety.  Check out our post on The Essential Camp Meds Guide for Parents to understand why and find out more!

Your kids week at Outdoor Science School will be one of the most memorable and impacting experiences of their entire childhood. It is completely unplugged, and every school district should endeavor to provide this unique experience for their kids.

That’s A Wrap!

Hopefully, this post on outdoor science school is helpful, insightful, and enjoyable for you.  I will never forget my earliest days working with kids in the outdoors.  It was an eye-opening experience for me.

Having worked with adult groups in the backcountry on previous outdoor jobs, I was not expecting the immense, life-changing value of this unique experience.

It really touched my Heart to see the kids grow and become more confident through the week.  For many, it was their first significant, overnight outdoor adventure.

The growth went far beyond science, the kids left camp kinder and stronger individuals with bigger Hearts.  Hearts full of appreciation and awareness for our beautiful Earth and all of the other life that we share it with.

What a profoundly special honor it was for me to be the guiding hand for the kids in these science camp experiences.  Every summer, I strive to return to the cabin as a regular camp counselor.  I realized, in those early days, that is where the true magic of camp can always be found and felt.

This post is a part of our KCE Camp Tidbit – What About Outdoor Science School.  Have a great time preparing your young camper for their unforgettable outdoor adventure!

“Nature has been for me, for as long as I remember, a source of solace, inspiration, adventure, and delight; a home, a teacher, a companion.” 

– Lorraine Anderson

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Want to Share Your Experience or Ask a Question About Outdoor Science School / Science Camp?  Leave A Comment Below!

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