Multnomah County: A pilot project to integrate art into outdoor school helps students see nature through an entirely new lens.

It was an experiment: Could art awaken sixth-graders’ interest in nature during a weeklong adventure at outdoor school? In 2011, the Gray Family Foundation thought this was an idea worth investing in.

“We wanted to approach science instruction through an artistic lens,” says Dan Prince, who coordinates the Multnomah Education Service District Outdoor School. “We thought the best way to do it would be to immerse ourselves in one of our sites and really experiment with ideas.”

The site they chose was Camp Howard near Corbett, one of five outdoor school locations serving students in the district. With funding from the Gray Family Foundation through the Friends of Outdoor School, Prince hired both a full-time artist and seasoned outdoor school instructor to guide more than 700 students that fall in activities such as watercolor, sculpture, poetry and photography.

The results were beyond what they could have imagined.

“I was continually meeting kids who were telling me, ‘this is the first time I’ve felt like I was really successful at science,’ ” Prince says.

For one project, students painted watercolor pictures of trout and then wrote a story to imagine life as a fish. Students also built bird blinds—domed shelters of bended saplings—where they could view wildlife and even take photos. Photography was the most popular. Through the camera lens, students could focus on a single perspective in the sea of green around them.

Since the success of the 2011 pilot, the curriculum has spread to outdoor schools across Multnomah county and even the state, serving thousands of students each year.

“Our hope is that we can reach every kid in the way that they’re best reached,” Prince says.