Conservation Department gives $10,000 in gear to Columbia high schools

Thursday, August 28, 2014 | 8:16 p.m. CDT; updated 11:25 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 28, 2014

COLUMBIA — Mason Mershon thought the succession of boxes was never going to end.

Last Wednesday, the second day of classes for Columbia Public Schools, Mershon joined two other Columbia physical education teachers in collecting $10,000 worth of outdoor equipment from the Missouri Department of Conservation. The first-year instructor at Hickman High School looked on as his Ford Explorer filled up with everything from fishing rods to sleeping mats.

“They kept bringing box after box,” Mershon said. “It was unbelievable. I would compare it to Christmas morning.”

The department announced its gift to Hickman, Battle and Rock Bridge high schools in a news release Thursday afternoon. Made in partnership with the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation, the donation will go toward strengthening the curriculum of the Columbia Public Schools Outdoor Education Program.

Entering its second year, the program focuses on outdoor activities for Missouri residents. Students have the opportunity to leave the classroom and learn about nature through hands-on activities such as backpacking and fishing.

Mershon, who previously spent eight weeks student teaching at Hickman, said there has been growing interest in outdoor education across the district. He said his class has grown to nearly 30 students, and he’s heard a similar sentiment from the other two high schools. At Battle, the course has expanded to three sections.

With a closet full of new equipment in his gymnasium, Mershon only expects class sizes to increase. He’s found that outdoor education is quickly becoming an alternative to traditional, time-honored physical education courses.

“Students are definitely spreading the word,” Mershon said.

Brian Flowers, an outdoor skills specialist at the department, filed a grant request for $5,000 with the foundation about a year ago. He said once there was funding availability on the organization’s website, he decided to plead the department’s case to help youth better appreciate Missouri nature. He wrote he would be happy to put up the same amount.

After the foundationagreed, the $10,000 donation was spent on three outdoor kits with hunting, camping and fishing essentials.

“It’s going to mean the difference between sitting in a classroom lecturing about it and actually getting out to participate in the activity,” Flowers said. “Any time we can introduce kids to nature, that’s a good thing.”

Conservation department coordinator Shawn Gruber said students led to the creation of the outdoor education curriculum two years ago. After hearing an outpouring of requests for an alternative to standard physical education, Gruber and his colleagues developed a curriculum for outdoor education. Then, at each high school, they made sure instructors were capable of handling the coursework.

Gruber said he felt confident about the program when it started last fall, but it’s nothing compared to the feeling he has today. The donation has reassured him about the future of outdoor education in Missouri.

“The interest has only increased,” he said. “We hope the program expands to other schools.”

Supervising editor is Bailey Otto.

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