Camp Cooper celebrates 60 years teaching Tucson's youth about the Sonoran Desert

A man in a blue rain coat wearing a woven hat stands in the desert in front of a group of grade school children as he points behind him at the desert landscape.

Cooper Center for Environmental Learning program coordinator Isaac Silva talks with students from Adah Lineweaver Elementary School while out on one of the several trails located at the center, which allows students to connect with the Sonoran Desert.

Chris Richards / University Communications

For the first time in five decades, construction is underway at the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning, a "living classroom" tucked into the hills of the Sonoran Desert on Tucson's west side. The center is operated by the Tucson Unified School District in partnership with the University of Arizona College of Education.

The Cooper Center, known affectionately as Camp Cooper, broke ground Feb. 2 on its new, state-of-the-art restroom and shower facilities – a milestone within a milestone for an organization celebrating its 60th anniversary all year. To celebrate the big day, center staff were joined by Robert Q. Berry III, dean of the College of Education; Gabriel Trujillo, superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District; donors; and construction partners CHASSE Building Team and Natural Building Works, who dug in on the new building project that marks the first phase of the center's master plan renovations.

With construction crews now on-site and busy expanding the Cooper Center, director Colin Waite said he looks forward to even more opportunities to share the joy of outdoor exploration and an understanding of the natural world that comes with spending time in the desert.

A group of young students walk down a trail next to a yellow sign with a bird painted on it. The sign says "Qual Trail."

Students visiting the Cooper Center explore the surrounding environment to blend learning and connection.

Chris Richards / University Communications

"We want to be able to provide this experience to as many kids as possible," Waite said. "We want there to be enough people growing up understanding our connection with the earth so that when they are adults in the community, we live in a place where we take care of where we live. When we spend time outside, we're happier, healthier and better connected to the people around us, and to the world. That makes better stewards for where we live."

The $2.7 million, donor-funded first phase of the Camp Cooper Master Plan includes the construction of a new building for composting toilets and waterless urinals. The existing restroom facilities will be renovated into a shower house for students and guests during overnight programming. The project includes an outdoor classroom space, as well as environmentally conscious features such as solar panels, a greywater system for shower wastewater and more than 23,000 gallons of rainwater harvesting capacity to grow shade trees and other plants nearby.

Classroom collaboration

Located on 10 acres of scenic desert hillsides near Saguaro National Park's Tucson Mountain District, the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning got its start in the 1950s when Tucson District #1 administrator Herbert Cooper was tasked with locating and acquiring new school sites for what is now the Tucson Unified School District. With the aid of Tucson and Pima County officials, Cooper projected population growth and identified several parcels for development. Among them was a site located in the Tucson Mountains – north of Gates Pass and several miles west of Tucson.

That site first admitted students for nature-based learning programs in 1964, and the district built the current-day bathroom facilities, amphitheater, ramada, cooking grill and concrete slabs on which large canvas tents could be erected. Ten years later, cabins were built on those concrete plots, and the name Camp Cooper was officially chosen in honor of Cooper's work bringing the idea to life. Those cabins would soon become a kitchen, classroom, office and sleeping areas under the watch of site director Jody Simmons.

Historical photograph of a group of first grade students sitting on concrete and raising their hands. Behind them is desert vegetation.

Annie Holub (left) visited the Cooper Center in 1986 alongside the rest of her first grade class from Adah Lineweaver Elementary School. "I remember hiking around the desert looking for rattlesnakes, and excavating owl pellets," Holub said. "Looking back on it, I think that experience was integral to my sense of place and belonging here in Tucson."

Courtesy Annie Holub

In the fall of 1989, Doris Evans became the Camp Cooper resource teacher, and the site's name was changed to the Cooper Environmental Science Campus. Evans would remain in her position until she retired in May 2001, when Kathy Lloyd took the reins. Mike Mayer took over the center's top spot in 2008, and ran Camp Cooper until the current director, Waite, took over the role in 2012.

UArizona did not enter the Camp Cooper story until 2008, when the TUSD governing board first approved a partnership between the district and the College of Education to assist in and expand operations at the site – which was then renamed the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning. At the forefront of that partnership was Bruce Johnson, then professor of environmental learning and head of the Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies department.

Johnson went on to serve as dean of the College of Education and is now retired. He first visited the site in the 1970s, and after a career in outdoor and environmental education said the possibility of collaborating with the Cooper Center seemed like the perfect match for the college and his program.

"I saw the partnership as a big benefit to our students," Johnson said. "And a big part of being a land-grant university is being involved in the community, public service and outreach. This was a tremendous outreach opportunity to take the expertise that we have here at the university in terms of what we know from research about environmental learning, and to be able to take that and apply it. It was a really wonderful opportunity."

As part of the partnership with UArizona, Camp Cooper was able to offer its services to all students in the region, not just those attending TUSD schools. The center also benefits from the college's expertise and research, and Camp Cooper's programming soon shifted to a more experiential approach in which student discovery leads the way to learning.

The first university students to work with Camp Cooper were graduate students, specifically those pursuing degrees in environmental education. Eventually, undergraduate students in teacher preparation courses found themselves walking the trails and studying plants alongside children from across Tucson.

"We saw Camp Cooper as an opportunity for undergraduate students going into education fields to have experience working with children, to see what it was like to actually take people out of the classroom, to have that kind of experience and learn about what they could do," Johnson said.

The Cooper Center's collaboration with UArizona was deemed so successful that the Arizona Board of Regents and TUSD signed a new, 20-year agreement between the university and the center in September 2019, securing the partnership through 2039.

"Camp Cooper is a legacy for Tucson Unified School District. It has created memories over generations," Trujillo said. "For our students, it's more than just a field trip. It's an experience. It's the district's most beautiful, vibrant, and inspiring classroom. It's the place where environmental science and earth science come alive."

Blending learning and exploration

A grade school boy in an orange jacket hugs the bottom of a saguaro cactus where the needles have fallen off.

Adah Lineweaver Elementary School student Zachariah Thurn hugs the bottom of a saguaro while hiking during a recent Earthkeepers program.

Chris Richards / University Communications

From the classroom to the Sonoran Desert, exploring the wonders and mysteries of the natural world as an educational experience takes practice, dedication and a safe environment.

Luckily, the Cooper Center is perfectly located and staffed with a crew of excited and experienced educators who want nothing more than to share their passion with the world, said program coordinator Mariah Kuehl.

"What our programs do so beautifully is blend learning and connection," Kuehl said. "We get students out here, and the learning is super hands-on, super immersive and sensory-based, experiential. We're seeing things, but we're also hearing them, we're touching them. We also have times to reflect. We do meditation and other things that get the kids to connect with the land that they're on. Our mission is to create environmental stewards for the future. By learning and connecting, they can learn to love this place, respect it and keep things going, make changes and create an awesome future."

Learning from, and connecting with, the environment is achieved through a variety of programs at the Cooper Center. Kuehl and her colleagues have developed activities for preschool through eighth grade, which includes a variety of half- and full-day and overnight field trips.

Notable among those programs is Earthkeepers, a "magical learning adventure" set over the course of three days and two nights. Groups of fourth- and fifth-grade students learn basic ecological concepts that foster a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the natural world. The Earthkeepers experience begins with a bit of a mystery: Students are sent a letter and a map from a mysterious "E.M." The letter invites students to the Cooper Center to learn more about the desert, the secrets of the land and discover the identity of the enigmatic "E.M."

Over the course of their stay, students uncover more information, furthering the mystery and driving them deeper into a journey of adventure and environmental understanding. As they unravel the mystery, Cooper Center staff direct students through outdoor learning exercises ranging from identifying different animal tracks to learning how the sun's energy flows through all things in nature.

Students even have the opportunity to meditate in one of several "magic spots" located along one of several mile-long trails throughout the site.

"This program teaches kids a lot of stuff, but it really focuses more on the emotional side," said program coordinator Isaac Silva. "We really want the kids to fall in love with the land, and it really works. When you teach kids how to care for a place, they fall in love all on their own. The first time we get on top of a little hill and get a look at Tucson, it's mind-blowing for them."

Whether it's the Earthkeepers program or a number of half- and full-day camps, Silva said he and his colleagues aim to complement the work of classroom teachers in a way that expands upon what students learn in school. While classroom teachers can show slides or a video, Cooper Center staff can take students outside and touch cactus, or watch a woodpecker peck a hole in a saguaro.

A woman in a blue shirt with white, curly hair faces towards a group of chldren sitting on the ground in the desert while pointing to the left.

Camp Cooper in 1986.

Courtesy Annie Holub

No matter what program is underway at the Cooper Center, staff account for all learning styles by including numerous sensory experiences for students, as well as direction in both Spanish and American Sign Language when necessary. In terms of outdoor accessibility, each exploratory program can also take place off the trails and within the camp's main facilities – and staff work with individual teachers to meet their students' accessibility needs.

While the Cooper Center offers most of its services toward childhood experiential learning, Kuehl said the center also hosts professional development opportunities, so teachers are better equipped to bring the natural world into the classroom.

Teaching into tomorrow

The partnership between UArizona and the Cooper Center has grown considerably since it was first established 16 years ago, including hundreds of university students and faculty over the years across multiple departments.

In addition to the College of Education, the Compost Cats program within the Office of Sustainability developed the Discovery Garden at the Cooper Center, where students and educators learn the basic practices of composting.

Despite changing shape over the years, the partnership between the Cooper Center and the College of Education is still a vital part of the college's mission to prepare future educators, provide the support necessary for students to be successful and connect with the local community, Berry said.

A former classroom teacher, Berry said Camp Cooper not only benefits its young attendees, but also the future teachers, school counselors and administrators attending his college who find their way to the site.

"Our programs provide our students not only the opportunity to connect with K-12 students in classrooms, but outside of the classroom as well," he said. "Camp Cooper helps in teacher preparation, community engagement, and connecting formal and informal education. We want to show our students what a classroom without walls looks like. Camp Cooper is that classroom without walls. It provides us space for our students to develop learning opportunities."

With 60 years in the rear view, the Cooper Center and its university partners look forward to another six decades of environmental education.

"We're still here after 60 years because people value us," Waite said. "Because educators value us. If we want to continue to grow, we have to continue to find new opportunities to connect. Camp Cooper is a gem that needs to not be as hidden as it has been. We want it to grow, and we want to be out in the community. We want to share our story of environmental learning with other people who care about where they live."