Experience UGA

Field trip program brings Clarke County kids to campus for a look at what’s beyond high school

Experience UGA

Coile Middle School sixth-graders try to keep the ball from hitting the ground during their field trip to the UGA campus, part of a new program called Experience UGA.

A bright orange ball shoots up in the air under a clear blue sky. Below, about two dozen kids track its movements, prepared to lob it back up if it comes their way. The air is more than a little crisp—about 38 degrees on this February morning—but the kids don’t complain about the cold. They’re focused on keeping that ball from touching the ground.

It might look like recess, but these sixth-graders from W.R. Coile Middle School in Athens are enjoying a field trip to the UGA campus. This is Experience UGA, a new program that brings students from the Clarke County School District to campus for activities that reinforce what they’re learning at school while exposing them to college life.

Brendan Leahy, a public service associate at UGA’s Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, leads the ball game. He talks the kids through the process of setting goals: How many times can they hit it without letting it touch the ground? They settle on 24, but early attempts yield only three or four hits.

“You guys are doing great. You’re improving,” he says. “What are some things we need to work on?”

The kids strategize with Leahy and gradually improve, reaching 15 hits and eventually a high of 29.

From the sideline, Coile teacher LaToya Lewis takes note of who’s stepping up to help with organization.

“I’m seeing who the leaders are,” she says.


“Can I hold that one again?” asks 15-year-old Alexandra Saupe on a January day. “Its eyes are so weird.”

Alexandra Saupe, 15, holds an Australian spiny stick insect. She and other 10th-grade AP biology students from Clarke Central High School visited UGA to take part in programs sponsored by the Department of Entomology and the School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

She’s referring to an Australian spiny stick insect, which looks a bit like a praying mantis but is brown and much larger. Its front legs, when held up, make the shape of goalposts.

Saupe and 25 10th-grade AP biology students from Clarke Central High School are visiting Whitehall Forest, a UGA property about four miles from downtown Athens. The students will split their time today between programs hosted by the Department of Entomology, part of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and the School of Forestry and Natural Resources. They’ve begun the day by getting up close and personal with insects including a Madagascar hissing cockroach and a rose hair tarantula named Rosie. Naturally cell phones are out, and pictures are being taken.

James Murphy, a graduate student in entomology, asks a question.

“Do you know what makes an insect?”

“Six legs,” replies a Clarke Central student.

“Yes,” Murphy says. “Good.”

The idea behind Experience UGA has been around a long time—since these teenagers were in the early years of elementary school, according to Janna Dresden, director of the Office of School Engagement (OSE) at the College of Education.

In her six years at OSE, it’s a question she’s heard asked repeatedly: Many Clarke County students live within a mile of UGA but never visit—why not bring them to campus?

The idea was first formalized in 2011 in a grant application for the Whatever It Takes project, which explored all aspects of what Athens-Clarke County children would need to be successful in life. Far reaching in scope, the project brought together educators from the Clarke County School District (CCSD) and UGA as well as representatives from local nonprofits focused on families and community. Dresden’s team suggested a number of solutions, one of which was a plan to take kids on field trips to campus.

Though they didn’t receive the grant, the field trip idea stuck around. Last year Dresden approached UGA’s Office of Service-Learning (OSL), where she found an ally in Director Shannon Wilder. By summer, Claire Coenen (AB ’10) had joined OSL as a part-time intern, charged with getting the program off the ground. A strong partnership with CCSD was already in place through Dresden and OSE, which serves as a bridge between educational theory and practice. But Dresden and Wilder weren’t sure they could find enough UGA units to host field trips. They scheduled a series of meetings to gauge interest and were pleasantly surprised.

“People were amazingly interested,” Dresden says. “That first meeting—we were all just blown away. That room was packed with people.”

Clarke Central 10th-graders tour the Whitehall Deer Research Facility during their Experience UGA trip to Whitehall Forest. While being inspected by the inhabitants, the students learned how deer vision is different from human vision, what drives antler growth and about UGA research projects on deer repellents.


“Wake up, Old Man Spruce!” Forty-five pre-K students holler at a puppet that’s fallen asleep. The kids are enjoying a show at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia before heading outside to explore on this day in early March. Led by Andie Bisceglia, children’s program manager, the kids learn from Old Man Spruce how trees clean the air and then stand up and make believe they are trees, swaying back and forth and waving their fingers like branches.

The kids are from the Early Learning Center, a CCSD early childhood education program, and for some it’s their first trip to campus. Shannon Wilder hopes it won’t be their last. The plan is for Experience UGA to eventually bring all Clarke County students—currently about 13,000—to campus once a year during their entire K-12 career.

“One of the goals is to introduce them to college life… and to get them considering what they’re going to do after graduation,” says Wilder, who took a leap of faith last summer when she gave the go-ahead to start the program.

Since fall, Experience UGA has brought more than 3,500 CCSD students to campus. Kids in pre-K, kindergarten and fifth through 12th grades have visited a variety of units including UGArden, the Special Collections Library and the College of Education. Next year additional units will be involved, with theater, dance, the Latin American Ethnobotanical Garden, Romance languages, journalism, financial aid, public health, engineering, student affairs, law, public and international affairs, the Ramsey Center and the Washington Semester program coming on board.

Claire Coenen has a soft goal of having a trip for every grade next year. And with the campus community’s enthusiasm for the program, it could happen.

“It’s really been amazing how it has just snowballed, just gained more momentum and more momentum,” she says.

Kyala Conner, a fifth-grader at Gaines Elementary School, talks to Callan Steinmann about the sun catcher she made during her Experience UGA visit to the Georgia Museum of Art. Steinmann is GMOA associate curator of education.


Jean Martin-Williams asks for silence. The professor of music is preparing to lead the UGA Horn Choir as they play for more than 50 fifth-graders from Gaines Elementary School. The kids have received their lunches and are ready to dig in, but Martin-Williams asks what they would do if they wanted to make it sound like it was raining.

“Open your chip bags,” she says. “It’s raining!”

The kids have spent this January morning at the Georgia Museum of Art (GMOA), where they learned about kinetic art, made sun catchers based on a sculpture and contemplated paintings and decorative arts with a docent. After lunch they’ll observe an orchestra rehearsal, sitting next to large drums that will banish any post-lunch sleepiness.

Colleen Fleming, a senior majoring in music education, is a member of the Horn Choir. She enjoyed watching the kids react to the lunchtime serenade. “I never got that experience in elementary school,” she says. “I hope they got something out of it.”

After lunch Jennifer Bell (MEd ’12), a teacher at Gaines Elementary, says the kids are both excited and overwhelmed. For many, this is the first time they’ve seen instruments and UGA students up close. And for some, it’s the first time they’ve been exposed to live music.

“As a teacher, you can’t create that in a classroom,” she says.

The GMOA trip for fifth-graders has existed since 2005 and served as something of a model for Experience UGA. The School of Music trip is new, and part of Coenen’s job is to help hosts develop a trip that fits with CCSD curricular goals—including developing pre- and post-trip materials—and covers logistics like busing and bathrooms.

Ty Callahan (right), a ninth-grader at Clarke Central High School, investigates an unknown bacterium during a bacterial pathogenesis session on Biology Day. He’s assisted by UGA senior Rahul Kapoor, a microbiology major from Lilburn.

Trip hosts can vary greatly in size—from a large college to a small department—and the number of students they can host, but Coenen says they can design a program that will work for any unit.

“If someone comes to us and wants to host a trip, we’ll make it happen.”



That’s the general reaction of about 20 ninth-graders from Clarke Central High School as a black light reveals the Glo Germ on their hands. It’s a bit of a setup—they’ve been investigating unknown bacteria at a series of lab stations, some of which were deliberately contaminated with Glo Germ, a teaching product that simulates the presence of germs. But it’s all part of the bacterial pathogenesis session they’ve attended on UGA’s first Biology Day late in February. After using a series of tests to identify the unknown bacteria, the students put their hands under the black light for a quick and effective demonstration of how easily germs can spread. They wash their hands thoroughly before heading to their next session.

A few days later, Anna Karls sits in front of her computer. On the screen is a complex spreadsheet that outlines the schedule and logistics for the second of two Biology Days hosted by Experience UGA this year. She’s made it through the first—which brought 250-plus kids from Clarke Central—and included a welcome from Pamela Whitten, UGA senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, and Philip Lanoue, superintendent of the Clarke County School District.

“Thanks to all those here in this room, we have a chance to bring you here, for the first time ever, so you can see… where you can be in four years,” Lanoue said.

“We brought you here because it’s an opportunity for you to say, ‘I want to do that.’”

In a few days, Karls will lead the second Biology Day with nearly 300 ninth-graders from Cedar Shoals High School. While on campus, the kids are divided into groups of about 20 that rotate through sessions on topics including cell biology, infectious diseases, bioexpression and fermentation, x-ray crystallography, marine sciences and pharmacology. Organizing this has been a logistical nightmare, but Karls is focused on how this exposure could change a student’s life.

During the first Biology Day sponsored by Experience UGA, Clarke Central High School ninth-graders Byron Spraggins, 15 (center), and Gemerious Smith, 15 (right), try on personal protective equipment used by lab workers at the Riverbend South Laboratories. They’re assisted by Shelly Helmes, lab manager and research professional in the Department of Infectious Diseases. Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker.

“If they see this early enough, it can influence how they think about school and how they prepare themselves for a career afterward,” she says.

Karls, an associate professor of microbiology, teaches a service-learning class; her students planned the bacterial pathogenesis session. It’s good practice, she says.

“It’s a very valuable thing for our students to learn how to communicate with the public.”

Wilder agrees. UGA students are involved with many Experience UGA trips—running sessions, leading facilities tours and serving as escorts for campus visitors. The exposure is great for the visiting CCSD students, who get an opportunity to experience college life, but it’s also useful for UGA students. Sharing their knowledge reinforces what they’re learning, Wilder says.

“They’re connecting more deeply with the content that they’re studying by introducing it to CCSD students.”


Zariah Thomas, 4, became a mother during her trip to the Botanical Garden in March. The pre-K student at CCSD’s Early Learning Center dug up an earthworm and adopted it, naming it “Puppet” and referring to it as her daughter. After some persuasion she reluctantly left her daughter outside and returned to a classroom, where she offered her assessment of the morning’s activities.

“That was a good trip! I knew I could see some trees.”

Shannon Wilder would like to bring Thomas back to campus every year until she graduates from high school. But taking Experience UGA to that level will depend primarily on finding ways to pay for it.

“The average cost of a trip is about $5,000, and the bulk of that is transportation,” Wilder says. “If we think about impact… it’s a really low cost, but getting the funding to get the buses moving is a barrier.”

In its first year the program received financial support from the President’s Venture Fund and the vice presidents of instruction, research, and public service and outreach, as well as the College of Education, the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Forestry and Natural Resources. OSL, OSE and CCSD voluntarily absorbed much of the cost, taking on the project without receiving extra funding. UGA’s participating units did the same, and faculty, staff and students donated thousands of hours.

Zariah Thomas, 4, holds the earthworm she dug up during a trip to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. A puppet named Oli Earthworm taught Thomas and other pre-K students from the Clarke County School District’s Early Learning Center that earthworms help with decomposition, breaking big things into little things.

Wilder hopes that going forward, support for Experience UGA will come not just from campus but from the community as well. Their first fundraiser, held in March, brought in nearly $10,000. With an average cost of $5 per student and a target of reaching 13,000, it’s unlikely that the program can expand beyond its current scope. But Wilder hopes that Experience UGA can serve as a model.

“As the anchor institution in our community, this is part of our commitment to our local district,” she says. “We do hope that other USG schools will consider a program like this in their communities too.”

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