Real differences between micro- and macroorganisms become clear when students have their hands buried in the earth, says Ryan King, a student-teacher from Southern Oregon University.

Real differences between micro- and macroorganisms become clear when students have their hands buried in the earth, says Ryan King, a student-teacher from Southern Oregon University.

"Is a worm a macro- or a microorganism?" King asks, after one of his students from Ruch Elementary School announces she's hit a writhing mother lode of organic recyclers.

The 10 seventh- and eighth-graders are on one of their regular field trips to Sanctuary One at Double Oak Farm — a nonprofit care farm in the Applegate Valley.

The worms are macroorganisms, busily creating beneficial microorganisms that will help grow the chard, lettuce and spinach being planted in the vegetable beds Tuesday afternoon, say King's students.

Partnering with the care farm is part of a larger plan to market Ruch School as a campus with a place-based learning approach that connects students with nature and uses community connections to improve programs for students, King says.

"We have totally changed our curriculum," he says. "And we have a lot of pride in this model. We've flattened the walls down and got the kids out in the community."

Getting students outside of the school environment and into the community has benefitted everyone, King says.

Della Merrill, Sanctuary One general manager, agrees. Every couple of weeks, the students visit the farm for a series of lessons in applied science. The symbiotic nature of the students' help and the care farm's healing and educational influence is a powerful mix, Merrill says.

As Merrill oversees the students' attempts at vegetable planting, she notes the crops will benefit both the local community, as part of a garden share project, and the farm's animals.

"We grow food for people, and we grow food for animals," Merrill says.

"The animals love variety in their diet. Especially the pigs. And we like to keep our pigs happy."

Some of the students spread bales of hay across the garden to help reduce watering needs and improve the soil conditions. Others probe large piles of compost with long thermometers, taking readings while answering Merrill's and King's questions about the proper care of compost.

"What are the five elements of compost?" King asks.

Greens, browns, heat, moisture and air, they reply.

"Why do we turn it?" King presses.

"We flip it because we don't want it to get all nasty and smelly," says David Prudell, 12. "We want to keep it fresh."

The students getting hands-on lessons at the care farm will teach their knowledge to first grade students later in the week, working on their "confidence and competence," King says.

"What we learned about in the classroom is happening here," he says, as he helps Prudell fill five-gallon buckets with water.

Abbi Melms, 13, and Sierra Haskey, 12, kneel in the rows, carefully placing tender new seedlings into the rich soil. Melms, who has created a garden of her own at home, says she enjoys teaching the younger students.

"I like teaching about something I've learned," Melms says.

Ruch Elementary will soon have its own garden, King says. Design plans were received two weeks ago, and planting is slated for summer.

"I think students thrive more when they can see what they're doing," King says.

Sansa Collins, the farm's animal care manager, is giving a few students a lesson in psychology with the help of some four-legged teachers. Taking abused and or neglected dogs for a walk down a country lane teaches lessons in compassion and understanding consequences of ones actions, she says.

Some of the dogs bear physical and emotional scars from their abuse, Collins says, noting Leela, a pitbull mix, was picked up by staff at the Jackson County Animal Shelter. Leela was emaciated when she arrived at the care farm. Her ears bear several scars that likely are from a botched attempt at cropping, Collins says.

Collins explains to the students that their energy is having an effect on the dogs' behavior. She praises them for bringing "calm energy" to the canines.

Jasper Armstrong, 12, ambles along behind a big, gray-muzzled dog. Leo is one of the shelter's most venerable dogs, says Collins.

"He's our sweet old grandpa," she says. "He's definitely been here the longest."

As the boy and the dog shuffle along amidst the rest of the students, who are walking other homeless canines, Armstrong notes other, younger dogs are pressing ahead. The mixed-breed dog is "more of a follower than a leader," he says.

"He's really easy to train," Armstrong says, with an earnest smile. "I was teaching him how to sit. I barely needed to use a treat this time."

King smiles, too, explaining that Armstrong regularly asks to walk Leo. The boy and the dog have formed "an incredible bond," he says.

"Education doesn't just happen solely between four walls," King says. "Learning happens wherever you apply yourself.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or