Changes will expand educational opportunities for kindergarten through 12th-grade students, increasing the center’s capacity from 500 students to upwards of 5,000, said Ray Yurkewycz, Mount St. Helens Institute executive director.
The transformation will happen incrementally.
By the end of 2024, the center will have new yurts and staff housing scattered in what is now the center’s oversized parking lot. The additions are an upgrade from its current setting, a dark narrow space that was previously the center’s bookstore.
“It’s totally makeshift,” Yurkewycz said. “We want these kids to feel comfortable.”
Overnight lodging, dining and educational spaces will be incorporated into the site after its first phase, which will eventually host more than 13,000 guests a year. Forty vehicle and tent sites will be dispersed in forested areas next to the center with multiple hiking and biking trail systems, directly connecting visitors to the volcanic landscape.
To keep up with this growth, the institute will eventually need 40 to 50 full-time employees — a jump from the 15 it has now.
To date, the Mount St. Helens Institute has received $1.3 million for the project, which paid for master planning, feasibility and design and engineering for this phase. The institute’s immediate developments will cost between $10 million and $15 million.
It mirrored Oregon’s program, introduced in 2015, which used state lottery funds to support fifth- and sixth-grade outdoor learning. Washington’s statewide initiative was presented in the Legislature during the COVID-19 pandemic, as students were isolated from their classrooms and each other.
Many of the kids who visit the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater are experiencing a lot of firsts, especially when staying overnight, according to Yurkewycz. They haven’t been away from their parents, and some haven’t been camping.
This discomfort, maybe even anxiety, can be transformed into confidence when coupled with fun education and peer engagement.
“Those relationships translate into a different atmosphere in the classroom and improve academic and social outcomes because of the relationships that are forged through that unique experience,” Yurkewycz said. “Outdoor school plus the volcano is just a very strong, powerful combination.”
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