Lakeshore Learning: UNL, Ogallala-area students connect art and science on Big Mac

Lakeshore Learning: UNL, Ogallala-area students connect art and science on Big Mac

By Tyler Dahlgren

The Natural Setting

If you find yourself journeying northward on Highway 61 through Nebraska’s Sandhills, it’s impossible miss Lake McConaughy.

The state’s largest body of water almost looks out of place. Beautifully out of place. A 21-mile long recreational oasis for boaters, fishers, windsurfers and everyone in between.

You might, however, zip right past neighboring Lake Ogallala, a much smaller reservoir on the west side of historic Kinglsey Dam that serves as home to Cedar Point Biological Station, a field research facility owned by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

UNL asks the question on the Cedar Point website, “Where else can you take a UNL course on a beach and still be in Nebraska?”

The answer is nowhere. Only in Ogallala, where area public school students, under the direction of UNL undergraduate instructors, spent four days last week at “Art Adventure with Science Focus!”.

The camp is one of many learning opportunities held at the facility, a classic summer camp complete with vintage log cabins used for student housing, dining and discovering nestled in the western high plains of the North Platte River valley.

“We always look at water out here and the balanced approach that’s taken when managing that water,” said Nancy Armstrong. “We always want to teach the kids the importance of our natural resources.”

What better place to do that?

“In this setting, they become aware of how important water is, and how important nature and soil is,” she continued. “They start to understand the importance of quality of water and, also, quantity of water.”

A Possibility Through Planning

For a decade, Armstrong has been coordinating summer learning opportunities for area students with UNL. Ogallala’s school librarian and a former fourth-grade teacher, she is responsible for finding the kids. That’s her favorite part of the process.

“That’s the most fun part,” she said. “I make a flyer and I send it out the last two weeks of school letting them know the dates. We’ve been lucky to have pretty good weather for July, and this is the only camp going on right now so we have a wide variety of students.”

Like Nebraska’s public schools, the camp doesn’t shut its doors to anyone. Ogallala students do get the first crack at registration about two weeks before it becomes available to area schools. All students are welcome, even those that might be vacationing at Big Mac with their grandparents. High ability learners are able to sign up a week in advance, but the camps encourage participation from learners of all levels.

“These guys (Cedar Point director Jon Garbisch and UNL camp directors) told me to never turn anybody away,” Armstrong said. “The ceiling is probably 40 kids. One year we had 38. We are never going to turn a kid away. If need be, we will have an extra adult from Ogallala Public Schools come over to help with supervision.”

This year, “Art Adventure with Science Focus!” consisted of two groups of campers. The kids braved some sweltering summer heat for the chance to get a jumpstart on the 2017-18 school year and a chance to see friends they might not have the opportunity to spend time with otherwise due to the sometimes-substantial distance students in Western Nebraska live from one another.

“Some friends that you know really well from school, you can’t go to their houses because they are too far away,” said 11-year-old Caden Walker, a return camper and student at Ogallala’s Prairie View Elementary. “Here at camp you can see them again before school starts.”

Elliot Pickering is the same age as Caden, but goes to South Platte Elementary in Big Springs. Excited to be amongst friends, and excited by everything else the camp offers, Pickering said tie-dying shirts is his favorite activity, and then echoed his friend.

“The best part is just all of it,” Pickering said. “Being able to see your friends is awesome. It’s the best experience.”

Armstrong, proudly sporting her “I Love Public Schools” t-shirt, followed her group of younger campers, which show up at 8:30 in the morning and stay for three hours, through the Tuesday morning activities. After an hour of transporting (made possible by Ogallala Public Schools) the 4th, 5th and 6th-graders, camp instructors welcome in the older group, made up of 7th, 8th and 9th-graders.

At the end of each camp, she gages interest in doing it again the next summer. The answer is commonly a unanimous “Yes!”. From there, the planning starts.

“We go ahead and contact everyone a few times through the fall and winter to coordinate a week that is going to work best for everybody,” she said. “And then we start talking about what kind of program it will look like.”

Garbisch, a geologist that will help campers identify different types of rocks, sets the dates in stone, preferably one where the always-active facility isn’t being used for a heavy-duty graduate class.

“Last year, we paired with the parasite class, so the kids were pretty interested in that,” Armstrong added.

It’s a chore, to be sure, but one Armstrong takes on happily. It’s part of leading students in the state of Nebraska. And providing kids the chance to bask in the sun, to learn on the shores of an unbelievable resource, and to explore an environment like Cedar Point, makes it worthwhile and more.

“In Nebraska, we always want to be sure we are giving our kids the top-quality education and one of the things I’ve been saying is sometimes kids are just inside too much and they really need to be outside to experience the sounds and sights a place like this has to offer,” Armstrong said. “Yesterday, the kids were finding different leaves and they started making connections and talking about how nature is like art. It was really cool to see those connections made.”

A Gracious Grant

Where Amanda Breitbach is from is not all that different from Ogallala.

She went to high school with about 100 other students in eastern Montana, and is able to relate with the landscape and the campers. It’s one of the reasons she fell in love with Cedar Point, and the collaborative learning and exploring that takes place on its grounds.

After receiver a graduate degree from UNL, Breitbach teamed with Lincoln artist and UNL Cather Professor of Art Karen Kunc to write a grant to the Rural Futures Institute last spring, about the same time she completed her graduate degree. The grant was approved.

“It really is amazing,” Breitbach said. “I’ve been able to come each of the last four years in once capacity or another. I have twice worked with the undergraduate class. Last summer, I taught a photography class out here for UNL students.”

What started as a 100-Level college course is now a 300-Level class. Just like Armstrong, Breitbach plays the role of recruiter, only she works to attract art students from UNL’s campus. Kunc, an artist who owns Constellation Studios on O Street in Lincoln, sponsored scholarships to pay for room and board for some of the college students. Cedar Point also has a residence artists program that will draw 10 people to the site this year.

Growing up, Breitbach would have jumped at the chance to sign up for something like “Art Adventure”. In small schools, art resources may be limited. Any chance to expand artistic horizons is worth capitalizing on.

“I would have been there in a minute, but we didn’t have anything like this,” Breitbach said. “I think that’s part of the fun for me, to be involved with the rural community and rural kids that come with a background a lot like mine.”

The kids, Breitbach said, make the camps fun, but there is some trial and error involved.

“Every year it’s been a different instructor with the undergraduate class,” Breitbach said. “Each one of them is getting to invent this class for the first time, and to think about this special environment and how they can use it and how it can complement the concepts they are trying to teach.”

Breitbach has invested her summers in Cedar Point and the campers, college and elementary/middle school students alike, that make the place special.

“I really do love Western Nebraska, so I love coming out here and I love this place,” she said. “I love to canoe on the lake in the evening. It’s gorgeous. Hiking the uplands and the prairies is beautiful. I love being out here, and I think this camp has become a highlight because I love to see the interaction between my art students from UNL and these younger kids and to see how they really grow from the first day to the last.”

Collaboration is Key

To see post-secondary students from Lincoln learn alongside public school students from the Panhandle is a unique caveat for Armstrong and Breitbach. Students look up to their instructors, who treat them as peers, as another artist.

“It’s great for them to be around college students,” said UNL senior fine arts student Hannah Demma, a second-year instructor. “They have a lot of questions. They are really curious about college in general. I know it’s down the line for them, but seeing different environments that they can learn in is really interesting to them. Being around people studying what they’re interested in has a positive impact on them.

Demma is a graduate of Lincoln High, and, like Breitbach, says she would have been thrilled at an opportunity like “Art Adventure” growing up. Providing more mediums to make art, and lending exposure to experiences not available within the confines of a classroom, has a significant impact on her.

And while the instructors often become role models for the younger campers, the teachers can, on occasion, become students. Their campers are often quite insightful.

“I learn a lot from the kids,” Demma said. “They probably actually know more science than I do sometimes. It pushes me to research more science because they are going to have so many questions that I need answers for.”

With aspirations of becoming a college professor one day, UNL junior Austin Coudriet is a Lincoln Southeast graduate hoping to get a leg up on teaching. A first-year instructor, he didn’t know what exactly to expect, but camper engagement has been a pleasant surprise.

He’d never mixed art and science much before, so he’s sharing those newfound connections with his campers, all the while encouraging them to pursue their interests.

“From an art standpoint, it’s important that they see these students and graduate students who are doing art for, eventually, a living,” Coudriet said. “You can do it. A lot of people are afraid they won’t be able to find a job in art or do anything with art, but you can. We’re doing it.”

At “Art Adventure with Science Focus!”, there are learners of all abilities, but they share a mutual admiration for the UNL students, who Armstrong credits for their kindness and leadership.

“Those college kids are just role models for the younger kids, and this is just their second day of camp,” she said. “Teachers here give the kids a lot of time to process, and every answer is the right answer. There are no wrong answers here because it is what you perceive to be right.”

When camp adjourned, Armstrong posed the same question she does every year. Come spring, Ogallala parents will start inquiring about dates for the next camp.

At Cedar Point Biological Station, where college students and elementary kids gather on the state’s most beautiful of landscapes, discovery through collaboration never stops.

“You see the delight on the kids’ faces,” Armstrong said. “This place sparks enthusiasm and the thrill of learning.”

They said it!

“Rock-Paper-Scissors, we’ve learned, solves everything.”-Armstrong on solving minor camp quarrels

“We don’t really even ask (about disabilities). Generally, as a teacher I don’t even look at labels or files until a month after school has started.”-Armstrong, on the camp’s pledge to accept all students

“I usually tell them, ‘You’ll be smarter today when you leave than when you first came.’ That’s kind of the point of summer school.”-Armstrong

"Big collaboration. UNL is a big one to do the housing and get students here, not to mention the grant they wrote. That helps the kids in being able to come out here. Also, our Game and Parks is letting us use the 50-seat theater in their visitor center, where we will show a PowerPoint highlighting all the things the kids did."-Armstrong

"The kids camp is just amazing. Mrs. Armstrong, we could not do this without her, she is amazing."-Breitbach

"We should also give a big shout out to Cedar Point. It was the director of Cedar Point (Garbisch) who reached out to the art department looking for ways he could use the facility better. That sustains the place. The more people out here using it, the more valuable it is."

“It would be more difficult to make that connection between art and science in the city. It’s easier out here with all the resources, and wildlife, and lake. It’s kind of nice to be secluded from the city.”-Coudriet

“If they ask me, I’d love to come back next year.”-Coudriet

“The kids are excited. The older kids are ready to go when they get here. The younger kids need to play a game to get warmed up sometimes.”-Coudriet

“Just being outside, that’s my favorite part. I love adding the nature element to the art because that’s something I like doing with my work. So getting kids excited about nature, science and art is like a three-for.”

“My favorite part of the camp has been doing tie-dye shirts!”-Echlyn Ogier, 10-year-old student from Prairie View Elementary

“I like the scavenger hunt the best!”-Tylie Walker, 9-year-old student from Prairie View Elementary