Project C.A.V.E.S. (Creative Adventures and Valuable Experiences through Spelunking) provided 18 high school students from across the state an authentic immersion in science outside of the classroom.  This seven day residential program for gifted science students was provided by a competitive grant from the Department of Education and hosted by the Ozarks Unlimited Resources (OUR) Cooperative on June 12-18.  Shelley Tomlinson, OUR Science Specialist and Sandra Johnson, OUR Gifted specialist worked together to secure the grant and administrate the program.  

The OUR Cooperative partnered with the National Park Service to provide a week of unforgettable learning experiences.  Buffalo National River Aquatic Ecologist Faron Usrey worked closely with the OUR staff to provide the facilities, caving equipment and access needed for a phenomenal experience. The students were housed at two Buffalo River ranger station locations including Toney Bend, near the Rush community, and Steel Creek, near Ponca.  

The location of the OUR Cooperative region provided the ideal physical geography for a summer cave camp.  The area is full of various wild and commercial caves with a rich history.  The campers were able to experience Back ‘O Beyond Cave, Willis Cave, Mud Cave, Indian Rock House, Lost Valley and a special designed tour of Blanchard Springs Caverns.  A key component in the success of the camp came from the leadership of a local cave expert, Chester Beck.    Mr. Beck began his fascination and love of caving when he attended Project CAVES camp as a student when Academic Enrichment for Gifted in Summer (AEGIS) Programs were first funded in the 1980s.   

This camp was designed to immerse students in advanced scientific concepts and research.  Through each day’s activities, student experienced the joy of discovery that is central to being a scientist.  Project C.A.V.E.S. incorporated professional and graduate students from branches of science into the week’s experiences to expose student to the interrelatedness and range of science fields.   Each day included activities out in the field and back at base camp.  Activities included investigative studies in the areas of cave eco-systems, karst geology, bat populations, and hydrogeology.   Instructors included Nathan Windel, Deer High School Science Instructor, Kenya Windel, Deer High School Literacy Teacher, and Jennifer Usrey, North Arkansas College Science Instructor.  For one session, the Arkansas Geological Survey provided a crew of teachers led by Angela and Sandra Chandler that led the students through a series of hands-on activities and a guided hike that focused on past environmental conditions that created the rock formations we see today. 

Students were selected to participate based on a competitive process including a student application and essay, teacher recommendation, administrator/counselor recommendation, as well as current transcript.  Eighteen students, nine female and nine male, participated representing the following districts:  Cabot, Fayetteville, Deer, Pulaski County, Genoa, Little Rock, Farmington, North Little Rock, Riverside, Jonesboro, Yellville-Summit, Berryville, Strong-Huttig, and Camden Fairview. The week was filled with many activities and assignments that challenged the students mentally, physically and socially.  The end result was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all involved.
  Journal writing was part of the camp and provided great insight into the students’ views of the week.  One student wrote “One of the best experiences I have ever had.”  Another wrote “I can honestly say that I have never had an educational experience like this.  The people, instructors, and events have really changed my life.”  

The National Park Service sent a videographer, Weston Docktor, to spend the week with Project C.A.V.E.S. and create a video highlighting the partnership with the Buffalo River National Park Service.  The video will be posted on the Explore Nature Facebook page in late August (  

Academic Enrichment for Gifted in the Summer (AEGIS) was first introduced through ACT 3 of 1983 providing provisions and funding.  AEGIS programs were provided for many years serving hundreds of high-ability students with great success until funding was cut in 2001.  After a renewed interest and push at the legislative level, AEGIS was reintroduced during the 2015 session, but was dependent on the funding.  Limited funds were made available for Summer 2016, and Project C.A.V.E.S. was the only program funded.  

“The OUR Cooperative was extremely excited to receive the grant monies to provide such a unique opportunity for students across the state.  I believe that teachers and students alike were blessed by the experience.  Our hope is that funding will be increased and services continued for many years to come,” shared Sandra Johnson, OUR Gifted Specialist.  Students left Project C.A.V.E.S. having experienced science that is attainable, amazing and literally all around us, even under us! 

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If you want more information about taking youth groups caving, or you're just curious about what's involved with getting kids underground, visit the National Speleological Society - Youth Group Liaison Committee at Or you can email me directly at

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"Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but well placed footprint, kill nothing but time." - cavers' creed.


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