Nature-based STEM programs offered throughout summer

Riverbend Environmental Education Center
Photo credit Riverbend Environmental Education Center
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Minutes away from the city line in Gladwyne, the Riverbend Environmental Education Center has been a leafy oasis of trails and woodlands open for the public to wander from dawn to dusk, as well as a source of innovative eco-friendly programming for all ages since 1975.

Have you been there yet?

“Although we’re focused on kids and kids’ education, we’re open 365 days a year for everybody,” Communications and Marketing Manager Rhonda Babb explained. “People are welcome to hike our trails and explore the preserve, which is 30 acres of very diverse natural space, with ponds and meadow as well as forest.

“Weekdays from 9 to 5, they can visit the animals in our nature center in our barn that we use in our education programs, or see lots of wildlife on the trails any day.”

Pack a picnic and meander down to the end of Spring Mill Road. The trails range from easy (Yellow Poplar Trail) to moderate (Blue Bird Loop) to steep (the deceptively quaintly-named Jack-in-the-Pulpit Trail). Or be amazed by the Aquaponics Greenhouse or the mail-order barn.

(Fun fact: Riverbend’s Snider Barn was ordered pre-cut from the Sears, Roebuck catalog in 1923. It’s held up remarkably well!)

The educational programs and camps, however, are at the heart of Riverbend’s mission, which the center calls “nature-based STEM education.”

They use the great outdoors as the classroom to steer kids painlessly — and with splashy, muddy, buggy fun — through inquiry-based lessons in the core science, technology, engineering and math areas.

It gets them poking around for nature’s mysteries in all kinds of icky stuff before someone convinces them it’s icky. Slime rules!

Riverbend programs are geared toward 3-year-olds to middle-schoolers, but this year, it hopes to lure veteran campers to its Navigator summer session.

“Rather than just being a ‘camp for older kids,’” Rhonda explained, “we view Navigators as a capstone for campers who may have been here through the years and are now looking for a more in-depth camp experience.”

Overnight excursions off site will take Navigators to meet experts in research and conservation. While on-site, they’ll plan service projects based around environmental stewardship and education and acquire leadership experience with younger campers. Some STEM, some counselor-in-training.

There’s even summer camp for school teachers, sending them back to class afterward armed with nature-based STEM lesson plans. August’s Summer Science Inquiry Institute is accepting registration until June 15 and will focus on food and the environment, urban agriculture, water and ecosystem health.

Peer into a pond, startle a chipmunk, and inhale the scent of sassafras. Babb said nature feeds the soul at any age, whether we’re trying to learn about it or not. Places like Riverbend remind us how much we need it.

“Getting away from the screens – getting dirty in real dirt” she mused. “We’re this little gem in Gladwyne that people don’t necessarily know about, but we’re not that far outside Philadelphia, so it’s really a cool place to come out and just be for the day, and be in the middle of everything and yet still be in nature.”
BONUS: Find some earth-loving STEM activities to try with your own wee ones here and here.