How our students use Cliff Cave for underground learning

How our students use Cliff Cave for underground learning
Posted on 05/16/2024
Student exploring Cliff CaveA one-of-a-kind experience is allowing some Mehlville School District students to learn cross-curricular concepts from the depths of Cliff Cave.

Dan Lamping, a social studies teacher at Mehlville High School, is leading these lessons. Lamping is an avid caver with more than two decades of caving experience. He’s involved with the Cave Research Foundation, a group that works closely on cave management with the National Park Service and other agencies. He’s also been the president of the Missouri Speleological Survey for more than 10 years, helping to map caves across the country.

He’s taken his passion for caving and applied it to the classes he teaches at Mehlville High School.

In 2009, a bat-friendly gate was installed at Cliff Cave’s entrance. Prior to that, people had access to the cave, leading to a lot of graffiti. Lamping was inspired to create a service learning project for his AP Human Geography students to learn about the cave and help clean up the spray paint on its walls. In 2013, he led students into the cave for the first time, and he’s been guiding a few groups of students into the cave each year since. Over the past decade, Lamping and his students have removed nearly all the graffiti from the cave’s entrance. They now travel deeper into the cave where graffiti can still be found.

Owen, a sophomore at Mehlville High School, explored the cave this year to do some graffiti cleanup. “I’ve gotten to learn more about how caves work, about cave life and the cave ecosystem.” 

MHS students cleaning inside Cliff Cave
Image: Owen, a Mehlville High School student, scrubs graffiti off of a cave wall using a brush. 

In addition to the service learning aspect, the project relates directly to the AP Human Geography curriculum. In that class, students focus on human social organization and the impacts it has on the environment. As it relates to Cliff Cave, they discuss how human actions over the years, like those of the Cliff Cave Wine Company, affected the cave.

“Through service learning, we’re able to make connections to the course, as well,” Lamping said. “We’re at Cliff Cave County Park, which is part of the Great Rivers Greenway. In AP Human Geography, we talk about land use and urban and suburban environments.”

During the past two school years, elementary school students have begun to explore Cliff Cave with Lamping, too. The fourth-grade science curriculum includes understanding how Earth’s forces change rocks over time and how weathering and erosion impact its landscape. Entering Cliff Cave allowed MOSAIC Elementary School students to observe the impact of water on the cave, study rock formations, see what plants and animals exist in the ecosystem and understand how caves form.

“I like that we got to go into the cave instead of just looking at it from the outside,” said Alexis, a MOSAIC Elementary student. “It’s an experience that not a lot of people get to do, and I learned a lot because I actually went in to see the layers of rock.” 

MOSAIC students in Cliff Cave
Image: A group of MOSAIC Elementary School fourth-grade students make observations about rock formations inside of Cliff Cave.

Having a resource like Cliff Cave within district boundaries allows teachers to localize topics that are part of the curriculum that many students across the country don’t have access to.

“We always try to bring topics back to our local area, St. Louis, and what’s in our backyard,” said Katie Rengel, a fourth-grade teacher at MOSAIC Elementary. “We want to help them see how these ideas work in their immediate environment.”

Teachers also demonstrate how information is connected across different subjects. In science class, students learned about rock formations and caves. In English language arts, students analyzed nonfiction texts, read fictional stories and conducted research about caves. In social studies, students discussed the history of the area and Cliff Cave. 

Any time we can bring in all of those cross-curricular skills, it really deepens their understanding,” said Sarah Bradley, a fourth-grade teacher at MOSAIC Elementary. “They’re no longer learning in silos, but they’re realizing everything they do ties together. When we can push it out into the real world, they see the impact, and they realize they’re not just learning something because it’s in a book, but because it’s part of their bigger world.” 

Incorporating Cliff Cave into the elementary classes has also led to more leadership opportunities for high school students, too. After visiting the cave with Lamping, Owen and Elliott, a ninth-grade student at Mehlville High School, led groups of fourth-graders on their exploration.

MHS students talk with Lamping
Image: Mehlville High School AP Human Geography students ask Lamping questions about his 25 years of caving experience while sitting inside of Cliff Cave.

“It was so much fun seeing the kids’ reactions in the cave,” said Owen. “It gets kids outside of the classroom and engages them better than in a typical classroom learning environment.” 

Seeing students get excited about the observations they make in the cave is something that inspires Lamping, too. 

“They’re getting to experience something they wouldn’t otherwise, contributing to cleaning up within a resource and understanding the unique world that’s beneath our feet,” said Lamping.

NOTE: It is dangerous to enter any cave without someone trained in cave safety. Mr. Lamping gained approval for students to enter Cliff Cave before doing so. All students wear safety equipment including helmets, lights and knee pads. Parents must submit permission slips before their students can attend a field trip to Cliff Cave.

The Mehlville School District strictly prohibits discrimination and harassment against employees, students or others on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, or sex including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity and other characteristics protected by law. The following individuals have been designated to handle inquiries regarding the non-discrimination policies: contact Adam Smith at 314-467-5006 or [email protected].