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October 21, 2016
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First Zane Grey Challenge

Catie Worthington, front, and Jade Smith complete the art challenge as they draw on the bank of the Delaware River. The girls acknowledged their good fortune to be learning outdoors on such a beautiful day.

A field trip with a future

LACKAWAXEN, PA — “Is this the Hudson River?” asked one student, gesturing at the Delaware River as it flowed past the Zane Grey Museum in Lackawaxen. That’s exactly why Port Jervis Middle School science teacher Paddy McCarthy decided to resurrect and reconfigure an academic competition that he participated in while growing up in Narrowsburg, NY and still values highly today. “These are the kids that need to get out and be challenged and recognize what we have here,” he said.

The Sullivan County Interacademic League (SCIL), during which teams matched wits in a series of educational events, left its mark on McCarthy, who still remembers having to solve problems with creative solutions while operating as a member of a team.

McCarthy reached out to National Park Service (NPS) education specialist Ingrid Peterec, who has been working with a group of Port Jervis students for the past several years. The NPS was able to provide funding for busses, enabling transport of 99 eighth-grade students.

“They’re the demographic that we want to be reaching, to make the connection that we’re here and that the river is our shared resource,” Peterec said. “It’s so hard for these schools. Funding is the stumbling block.”

McCarthy also enlisted the aid of fellow teachers Pete Kowal, Crissy Lundewall and Trisha Aumick. Collectively, they came up with challenges focused on math, English, social studies, science and art, along with a scavenger hunt meant to raise awareness of the museum grounds. “We’re trying to hit on things that the kids should know, as well as challenge them with difficult material where they need to think outside the box,” said McCarthy.

Many of the kids have never even been on the river, according to McCarthy, who secured donations from area businesses to motivate the students. “If you’re top notch and you work together and win a $60 free rafting trip, that’s special. Silver Canoe was very generous with free rafting vouchers for the winning team.” Other prizes were donated by Alice’s Wonderland, Cedar Rapids Rafting, Kittatinny Canoes, Lander’s River Trips and the NPS.

McCarthy has been focusing on team building with his students. “It’s interesting how little of those skills they have,” he said. “This will give them experiences they can draw on throughout the year. It also gives them some common ground. You don’t have to like science or be a scientist, but you’re going to have to work with people.”

Another concern McCarthy has targeted is communication skills. “This generation is very technology-communicative but they lack interpersonal skills,” he said. “They don’t know how to critique each other, to speak up and share their ideas or say they don’t think that’s going to work.”

McCarthy also contends that participation boosts self confidence. “Some kids are really stepping up and directing their friends,” he said. “It gives them a chance to experiment with leadership, which they don’t often get to do.”

McCarthy hopes such programs will help to reverse the increasing dropout rate by giving students an interactive and engaging learning experience that they can enjoy and will remember fondly. But he also hopes that enhancing the students’ understanding of the river and its environs will foster a stronger sense of responsibility for its well-being.

“What drives the local economy is tourism and people taking care of the river,” he said. “We need educated citizens to help with that. Our school is downstream of here, so hopefully what they get is a comparison of this place with their place. Some of the places near Port Jervis are just trashed. Once they see what’s going on up here, the water quality, the eagles—that really are the result of someone else’s stewardship—they can start to make connections.”

McCarthy hopes to see the competition become an annual event. Top winners of the rafting trips were the Llama Chins.