April 19, 2023
Randy Zellers Assistant Chief of Communications
MOUNTAIN HOME — Freddy Penka has the key to capturing students' imagination and attention, and it’s something he’s willing to share with any teacher wanting to deliver an elective to students they’ll be excited to attend. Penka’s Outdoor Adventures Class at Pinkston Middle School in Baxter County combines real-world outdoor knowledge with state-approved curriculums to teach students skills they rarely experience in a school setting.
Outdoor Adventures is a partnership between the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Outdoors Tomorrow Foundation to deliver a semester-long course of curriculum that satisfies all state requirements for a co-ed physical education course, a local elective or an agricultural science course.
“We’ve taught Hunter Education at our school for 15 years, but it’s only a seven-week class,” Penka said. “The addition of the lessons in the curriculum we received from the AGFC allowed us to turn the course into a full-fledged elective for our students.”
Penka still teaches two hours of World Geography to sixth- and seventh-graders, but the other four classes in his teaching day are focused on the outdoors.
“I have two classes with sixth-graders and two with seventh-graders,” Penka said. “We’ve covered archery, paddling canoes, fishing and survival skills like building a campfire and using a compass. The students have really enjoyed all the different things we cover through the semester.”
According to Sheila Lovelady-Connerly, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s school connections coordinator, Pinkston Middle School is one of 18 campuses enrolled in the program.
“We still have Project WILD and other programs that have been around for decades, but the Outdoor Adventures program has only been around for three years,” Lovelady-Connerly said. “It differs from our previous programs because it includes much more outdoor recreation in the lessons, not just wildlife management and biology. And it’s growing very fast.”
Perhaps incredible field experiences like some that Penka’s class has enjoyed have fueled the spread of the program. In the last two years, he has taken his students on trips many adults would envy, including a fishing visit to Dry Run Creek, a catch-and-release area on the Norfork Tailwater famous for its trophy trout fishing. Another trip involved a day of paddling at a local park pond using canoes provided by the AGFC’s Fred Berry Crooked Creek Nature Center in Yellville.
“I set up a large tractor tire’s inner tube and put a canoe on it right here at the school to teach the students how to get in and out and keep their balance before we had that trip,” Penka said. “They enjoyed it so much I could hear them talking in the hallway about looking forward to that trip for days before we went.”
But the class isn’t only field trips. Indoor instruction is a critical component of every lesson plan.
“We try to schedule a lot of the indoor instruction during times when the weather isn’t good,” Penka said. “That way the kids can really enjoy their outdoor lesson instead of worrying about cold or rain.”
Thanks to local agencies and organizations pitching in, even some of Penka’s in-class instruction is pretty memorable.
“We receive trout eggs from the (Norfork National) Fish Hatchery and hatch the trout in an aquarium we received from the AGFC,” Penka said. “It’s a lot of work, but the students get to see the fish hatch and grow, and we get to take them to the river to release them as part of the project.”
Lovelady-Connerly said there are more than 34 units of teaching materials available for teachers to choose, so they can mold the experience to fit their local resources and maturity level of their students.
“That’s key,” Penka said. “You have to keep the class sizes small enough to supervise the students and you have to be aware of maturity issues of students who want to participate. If you have a student who is not able to control themselves well, then you don’t want to hand them a bow and arrow or fishing rod with a hook and just let them go.”
The program requires a small commitment from the school at startup, with the curriculum costing $1,000, but the school then receives a matching grant from OTF in that same amount to cover supplies needed for classes. The AGFC can even help offset that initial startup expense through one of its conservation education grants, funded by fine money accrued from wildlife citations in every county.
“I can’t think of any school administration in Arkansas that could see this program as anything but good,” Penka said. “We’re giving our students something that they can use in the real world and they’re excited just about every time they walk through the door.”
Visit https://www.agfc.com/en/education/classroom/outdoor-adventures/ to learn more about Outdoor Adventures and how to introduce it to your school.
Girls with spark
Pinkston sixth graders learned to build a campfire using a ferro rod in a portion of the class. AGFC photo.
Kids with canoes
Paddling at a local park pond was a highlight of the program. Photo courtesy Freddy Penka.
Penka with students
Freddy Penka oversees students during a campfire-building program. AGFC photo.
Girl with trout
A trout-fishing trip to Dry Run Creek gave students a huge payoff for their lessons. Photo courtesy Freddy Penka.