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D49 Students Discover Cave Next to Their Playground

From the back door of Meridian Ranch Elementary School, the distance to the nearest cave to explore is about 90 feet. It was, at least, to kick off the month of May with an immersive learning experience for MRES fifth-graders.

MRES student explores cave simulator

Parked next to the paved four-square courts and tetherball circles, the CaveSim simulator beckoned visitors to duck into its entrance, an opening roughly twice the size of a standard dog-door.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s thrilling, I should say,” said Katy Gibe, MRES fifth-grade teacher.

A trip through the man-made cave was the grand finale of days of classroom work centered around cave exploration. Fifth-graders first completed a series of science labs, expanding their knowledge on a number of topics, including cave-dwelling creatures as large as bats and as small as slime-mold. Students even learned how to build a flashlight using basic supplies like a plastic water bottle.

“There's so much class curriculum and content they’ve covered that we don’t even realize we’ve covered,” Mrs. Gibe observed. “We’ve learned a lot of new science stuff, and also we’ve been able to recall what we know based on the questions that are being asked.”

CaveSim inventor Dave Jackson built the simulator on a 26-foot enclosed trailer as a training course for cave rescue teams, fabricating cavern formations like stalactites, stalagmites and sub caves to enhance the realism. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology educated electrical engineer then partnered with his wife, a Colorado College graduate with a master’s degree in education, to develop the CaveSim classroom experience.

Students complete classroom assignments on cave exploration

“What we’re really doing is teaching them science, math and history, English/language arts, lots of subjects. But we’re doing it with the cave,” Jackson said. Jackson added that student discovery is part of the fun.

“They come up to [the cave] and they think, ‘That’s it? There’s this hole, I go in and come out,’”’ Jackson chuckled. “They don’t realize there are 60 feet of tunnels inside, didn’t realize it has multiple levels and rock climbing holds, and they come out and say ‘It's so big on the inside!’”

“It’s really fun to go through,” affirmed Autumn Schawe, MRES fifth-grade student. “I like rock climbing, and I like how there’s rock climbing connected to it.”

The CaveSim visit replaced the traditional MRES fifth-grade field trip to Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science. Gibe explained a student fundraiser paved the way for the at-school field trip with some support from D49’s IGNITE program, which opens doors to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (S.T.E.A.M.) learning with grant dollars, and connects teachers to hands-on learning opportunities.

CaveSim brings a team of teachers and additional equipment to deliver additional practical lessons. By the time students finish the course, they’ve wrapped a friend on a cave stretcher and moved them to safety, or lifted a classmate using climbing ropes and pulleys.

MRES student participates in rock rescue training

“Honestly this is better,” said Mrs. Gibe about the at-school field trip. “There is excitement, there's engagement, it's all day long. So much more time can be spent on the experience.”


David Nancarrow