Science in a Tree program gives students at St. Raphael the Archangel School unique opportunity

After photographing her son Henry, Kristina Cyr turned her attention to Will Hotze, wanting to take a photo for his parents.

It would be quite the picture.

One problem, though.

"He's too high; you can hardly see him," she said, with a laugh, motioning to the dot swinging 60 feet up in a mighty oak tree about 100 feet away.

There, harnessed to a rope secured by Adventure Tree, Will dangled among branches at roughly the roof line of St. Raphael the Archangel Church, taking in the scenery from a birds-eye view and waving at his friends below.

On April 14, Will and second-grade classmates at St. Raphael School climbed two trees next to the church, just as first-graders did the day before and kindergartners the day after. Third- through eighth-graders are slated to climb early in the week of April 20.

"Basically by the time we finish, every single student and staff member, and parents will have an opportunity to climb," said Adventure Tree founder Guy (rhymes with tree) Mott, noting, "the kids get a real kick out of it. ... Look at that little figure way up there."

Mott, who goes by the nickname "Tree Guy," waved at Will, and Will waved back. Will then shouted to Adventure Tree's Dean Eckhoff that he was ready to come down, then jiggled the rope to signal the same. Then, with Eckhoff spotting him, he slowly slid to terra firma.

Afterwards, his hands still smarted from the experience.

"Well, my hands, it was pretty painful," said Will, who wore gloves for the climb along with a helmet and safety harness. The pain was about the same climbing up, not just coming down.

"It was both," he said, adding that the trip up "took a lot of effort, and it took a really long time."

Will made the climb in about 30 minutes, hoisting himself up in stages with use of a "magic" knot and a rope stirrup for his foot. To go upward, he pushed up the "magic" knot along the climbing the rope as high as he could reach, then raised the stirrup with his foot. Then, he stood up and repeated the process.

"It's an awesome workout," Tree Guy said.

The program at St Raphael -- "Science in a Tree" -- is Adventure Tree's flagship program, basically STEM on steroids. Young students get the experiential learning and the self-esteem building of tree climbing, while older students combine science with the climbing. The upper grades at St. Raphael will conduct experiments for gravity and physics, all while dangling in a tree 50-60 feet up.

The coup de grace will be photosynthesis -- physically measuring the trees, computing volume and mass, then figuring how much carbon is in each tree and how much carbon-dioxide it removes from the air.

"The beauty is you can set it (the experiments) for a high level, but the young kids can key in the numbers and be introduced to the topic, said Eckhoff, a 1992 graduate of CBC.

Mott and Eckhoff have backgrounds in climbing trees and in education, and Adventure Tree combines their love of both. Mott grew up in New Hampshire and his father is a career forester; Eckhoff grew up in Affton and climbed trees at his grandfather's farm. Both have advanced education degrees; Mott, a masters of education in adventure learning from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire; and Eckhoff, a PhD in physics from the University of Illinois.

Adventure Tree has been in business for four years, bringing science and climbing to schools throughout the St. Louis region.

Principal Kim Vangel brought Mott and Eckhoff to St. Raphael, responding to a letter Eckhoff sent introducing the program.

"We're happy to bring them here," she said as second-graders dangled in a tree overhead. "I went to their website and when you see the pictures of students up in a tree and pairing climbing with science ... it captivated me."

She checked with Pastor Msgr. Henry Brier, staffers, parents and the PTA "to make sure everybody thought it was a good idea, and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The students have been very excited."

The teachers, too. In a break between helping students with climbing gear and helping them make angels to drop from the trees later, second-grade teacher Stephanie Amlers observed the students dangling on-high.

"I never did anything like this, but I definitely wish I did," she said. "This hands-on experience is going to beat anything that I could ever teach them, that's for sure.

"This is really cool."

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