On a balmy May morning, a trio of Santa Margarita Elementary School second-graders watched as a red spotted milkweed beetle wended its way over the soft, silvery-green leaves of a milkweed plant.
“He starts out as a tiny little egg and then he hatches and becomes a larva,” their guide, 10-year-old Bailey Elkins, explained. Then she and her fellow fifth-grader, 11-year-old Lilee Rogers, led the children and their classmates further down a narrow, sun-dappled dirt path.
The students were taking part in Learning Among the Oaks, an environmental education program under the auspices of the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County. With the help of volunteers including Cal Poly students, ranchers, researchers and retired teachers, the program introduces Santa Margarita Elementary students to the oak woodlands surrounding their campus — teaching them about native animals and plants, soil conservation, watersheds and other subjects.
Beverly “Bev” Gingg, Learning Among the Oaks’ founder and director, credits the program with “helping the kids and their families see that the oaks around their school are more than just a pretty view.”
Gingg, who grew up on a cattle ranch outside of Paso Robles, launched Learning Among the Oaks in 2005 with a grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board. A seasoned educator, she holds a master’s degree in biology from Cal Poly.
“Being a science teacher, I’m pretty passionate about teaching people about the practical applications of science,” she said, “and trying to (help) children and their families with really understanding environmental issues.”
“People love oaks, but most people don’t understand a lot about oaks,” explained Gingg, who developed the program with the help of Bill Tietje, area natural resource specialist with the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
According to Gingg, Learning Among the Oaks received full funding from the board its first six years.
Then, in January 2013, the program found a nonprofit home in the form of the Land Conservancy. (It’s now completely supported by private donations to the Land Conservancy, Gingg said, although it receives small funding allocations from sources such as PG&E.)
Learning Among the Oaks is open to students in kindergarten to sixth grade, including home school and special education students. It also works with local schoolchildren through the Great AGventure educational field trip program, organized by the county Agricultural Education Committee.
Learning Among the Oaks reaches about 750 people a year, Gingg said, including community members.
In addition to 50 or so volunteers, the program enjoys partnerships with groups including the Morro Coast Audubon Society, Pacific Wildlife Care, Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District and the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Gingg also works with Cal Poly’s biological sciences department.
Prominent among Learning Among the Oaks programs is Oak Ambassadors, which trains fifth-and sixth-graders at Santa Margarita Elementary to serve as woodland guides. Students must be recommended by their teachers to apply for the program, launched in 2010.
Twenty children graduated from Oak Ambassadors this year, Gingg said.
Chris Lawson, 12, said he relishes the chance to share his knowledge with other kids. “I love seeing their faces when they learn something,” the sixth-grader said.
Much of the learning takes place on the Learning Among the Oaks Trail, a network of paths that covers 15 acres of Santa Margarita Ranch property. The longest route stretches about a half-mile.
“(The ranch owners) were willing to open the door to us and let us use their private ranchland for a nature trail” maintained by the California Conservation Corps, Gingg said. “That was huge and involved a lot of trust.”
During a recent hike, 30 second-grade students led by teacher Missy Teel participated in a game of “I Spy” as they followed the trail past spreading oaks and golden, grassy slopes — checking boxes every time they spotted larvae, a pine cone or an egg.
Oak Ambassadors pointed out examples of life cycles, such as a nesting box occupied by an ash-throated flycatcher and its newly hatched chicks.
“We take a lot of time for these hikes, and it’s worth every minute,” said sixth-grader Sammi Leasburg, 11, noting that the children seem more receptive when they’re out in nature. “It’s better than sitting in a classroom.”
“We learn every minute we’re out here,” added Lilee, who credited Learning Among the Oaks with boosting her confidence about public speaking. She’s applied that skill in class and when giving 4-H presentations about her pet rabbits.
Other programs include Lunch Club, which involves lunchtime science presentations, and the Nature Challenge, which invites children to identify mystery objects using pictures and other clues.
The wildlife camera project, which Cal Poly graduate Christina Adams started in 2011 as a senior project, captures photos of deer, raccoons and other critters that are shared with students online.
“It’s a really meaty program,” Gingg said of Learning Among the Oaks. “It’s not just fun, fluff and games.”
The program’s impact can be felt beyond Santa Margarita.
In May 2012, three Oak Ambassadors traveled to Sacramento to speak about Learning Among the Oaks.
“To see those kids speaking … at the state Capitol in a room packed with ranchers and environmentalists and political people … that was powerful,” Gingg said.
One of the students was Santa Margarita resident Nathan Sharon, now an eighth-grader at Atascadero Junior High School. Nathan, 14, helps maintain the wildlife cameras.
“A lot of the people I’ve met through (the program) left lasting impressions on me,” Nathan said, adding that the experience inspired him to pursue a career as a wildlife biologist. “It made me feel really good as a person to go out there teaching kids to take care of the environment.”