Felicity Lopez and Vanessa Cooke are used to youngsters traipsing through the second-growth redwood forest behind their high school.

Previously Lopez and Cooke, a freshman and senior at Sunset High School, would man an interpretive station and focus on one aspect of redwood ecology. But on the final day of high school students teaching third-graders recently, the two teens guided their charges through the whole forest themselves.

"Last week I watched a rotation and picked it up," Lopez said. "My little cousin learned a lot and is telling his mom about it. In Crescent City there's so much trees and wildlife it's nice (for them) to be able to learn about it."

Sunset High School has hosted every third-grade class in the Del Norte County Unified School District this fall as part of the school's experiential education program, said Principal Tony Fabricus. On Dec. 13, it was Joe Hamilton Elementary School's turn.

Under the watchful eye of their instructors, the high-schoolers led the third-graders through non-competitive games, a combined art project and math lesson and helped them make lunch. But the highlight of the morning was a trek through the woods.

During their trip through the forest, Lopez and Cooke showed their charges how to tell a redwood tree from a spruce tree using its bark. They pointed out sword ferns, huckleberry trees and English ivy. Lopez and Cooke also allowed the little ones to sample redwood sorrel.

"I like playing games with the kids, making them laugh and make them feel interested in what they're learning about," Cooke said. "It's nice if at the end of the day they remember the stuff you taught them."

Sunset High's 3 1/2-acre redwood forest was part of the district's property that was initially left as a buffer between the school and neighboring houses, Fabricus said. But when school staff members came up with the idea of having their students teach elementary school students, the district put in trails and an interpretive stand.

The school's experiential education program is about 2 years old. The trail and art lessons were designed based on third-grade science and math curriculum, Fabricus said. When Sunset High's students return to school in January, they will learn how to teach redwood ecology to fifth-graders, who will visit Sunset starting in late February.

"It's a benefit for third-graders to have a learning experience outside the school site and a mini-field trip," Fabricus said. "It's more important for our students' speaking and listening skills. They can now put trail docent and youth activity facilitator on a resume."

Grants from the Pacific Area Coast Teaching Innovation Network, which is funneled through the University of California, Davis, helped provide funding and training for Sunset High's redwood ecology course, said teacher John Murphy.

When describing how his students work with younger kids, Murphy talked about the expectancy theory.

"The expectancy theory says kids rise to the occasion," he said. "Our expectation for our students dealing with the little kids is high and they are always excellent with the little kids."

While their peers were outside, six third-graders in Heidi Swan's class made Christmas ornaments and learned about octahedrons (eight-sided figures made of paper) at the same time. In her own classroom at Joe Hamilton, Swan said with the topics she has to cover under the Common Core State Standards curriculum, her students don't often get a chance to work on a simple art project.

"This is very good for them," Swan said."I can tell that they're very engaged."

During the lesson, sophomore Berenice Marquez helped third-grader Aaron Lunn with his ornament. Marquez, whose brother is a friend of Aaron's, said this is the second time she has worked with third-graders.

"It's something different than just going on a field trip," she said. "And the students get to bond with older kids."

Aaron, who'd like to go to Sunset High School when he's older, said working with the older students allows him to learn more.

"It's just really fun," he said. "It'll be a really fun day."

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.