Once described as a place “where fingertips are taught to see,” Nature Camp is an academic camp that emphasizes hands-on, field-based, experiential learning. Campers learn in a variety of settings, including classrooms both inside and out (although even these are non-traditional, such as a semi-circle of wooden benches under a tree canopy), and they can expect to take notes in most classes. But campers also spend much of their time out of doors investigating nature up close: behind the eyepieces of binoculars, knee-deep in a cold stream, running behind a butterfly net, and on hands and knees with eyes peeled on the ground. Nature Camp is surrounded on three sides by several thousand acres of National Forest land, which provides an extensive outdoor classroom of forested mountains and streams.
Classes meet twice a day, except on the middle Sunday and the last Friday, for 90 minutes in the morning and in the afternoon. At the beginning of each session, campers choose one subject as their “major” class. Major classes meet on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the first Saturday, for a total of 15 hours of instruction, which allows the campers to explore one particular subject in depth. Campers rotate through the other “minor” classes on alternate days (Mondays, Wednesdays, and the first Friday), attending one class in each subject. Each camper keeps a notebook during the session and is expected to complete a written project for each class, which is intended to expand on the material covered in class and to provide them with tangible evidence of what they learned at Nature Camp and what they are capable of doing. Assignments typically begin with field observations but may also require directed research using the many resources available in the Nature Camp library. There are no grades, although class instructors provide positive, encouraging comments on all reports. Campers organize their reports in a folder at the end of the session, and a prize is awarded to the camper who has compiled the most outstanding notebook.
The educational curriculum typically includes 11 classes, which permits campers to take one major class and have one minor period in each of the other ten. A core set of seven classes is taught almost every summer, although the instructors and particular emphasis of each class usually vary from year to year. These classes are:
• Entomology (the study of insects)
• Herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians)
• Limnology (the study of freshwater ecosystems)
• Ornithology (the study of birds)
Additional classes are offered when a qualified and knowledgeable instructor is available or develops an innovative idea for a new class. In recent summers the curriculum has included such classes as Appalachian studies, astronomy, conservation, dendrology (the study of trees), environmental ethics, “larvotany” (the study of insect larvae and their host plants), meteorology, mycology (the study of fungi, including mushrooms), nature journaling, spiders, wildlife art, and even environmental microbiology and forensic entomology. The variation in classes from year to year means that returning campers are guaranteed to have a different experience each summer, but having a familiar set of classes gives them several opportunities to learn a particular subject.
Educational opportunities are not limited just to formal class periods. For example, occasional, optional birdwalks before Reveille or nighttime excursions in search of salamanders, to call owls, or to catch moths give campers additional chances to experience nature on its own timetable. During recreation periods counselors may offer hikes seeking plants, rocks, or stream inhabitants or organize investigations using the microscopes in the lab.