McKinney Roughs Nature Park: Outdoor Programs

Natural Science


Learn! Explore! An outdoor classroom awaits you!

The following programs are a comprehensive listing of all of our natural science programs offered.  Each program title is marked as a day (D) or Academy/multiday (A) program along with corresponding program time for each program type. Academy programs tend to be longer to accomodate more in depth content material. Most programs are offered as both day and Academy programs. However, some, because of the length of time necessary to conduct the programs, are only offered as Academy programs.

Water Conservation

  • Walking with the Water - Guided riparian hike (2 hours-D, A)
    A river runs through it and changes the landscape and the biota as it goes. Hiking along the banks of the Colorado River where it flows through McKinney Roughs, students will get a firsthand look at a riparian ecosystem and the species of plants and animals that live within it. We’ll also consider the role of trees and herbaceous plants in erosion control and in watershed management.
  • Waterworks - Watershed model investigation (1 hour-D, A)
    Water is essential to all living things. Water is at the heart of human civilization as well as a necessity in homes, businesses, industry, agriculture, and recreation. But sharing it and keeping it clean are a challenge, and the ways we use water can affect our environment. Students will focus on water’s wanderings through a watershed model to track down potential points of pollution in their community and learn about point and nonpoint source pollution.
  • Something Fishy - Fish adaptations (1.5 hours- A)
    It may seem fishy, but every fish species is uniquely adapted to its specific habitat. Students will catch a fish with a magnetic lure and identify their catch by using a dichotomous key. Looking at fish specimens, they will use a fish’s morphological features to learn about the habitat and behavior of various species native to the Colorado River. Students also will learn what is being done to help with fish and riparian zone conservation.
  • Drama in a Drop - Microscopic investigations of pond water (1 hour-D, 1.5 hours-A)
    A pond can be a very productive place! Students will discover the life that abounds in a single drop of pond water. They will scope in on  microscopic plants and animals that otherwise exist unseen. Participants will examine and identify some of the tiny organisms that  Anthonie Van Leeuwenhoek, known as the father of microbiology, dubbed “cavorting wee beasties.”
  • Aqua-ology - Biological water testing (1 hour-D, 1.5 hours-A)
    A stream that looks and smells clean could still be polluted. But the macroinvertebrates that inhabit the stream will reveal the truth! Students will use dip nets to collect macroinvertebrates, identify them, and classify them with a dichotomous key according to the invertebrates’ tolerance to different levels of dissolved oxygen. Students will evaluate their findings to make an assessment of the body of water.
  • Testing the Waters - Chemical water testing (1 hour-D, A)
    Students will discover the science of water chemistry. The class will determine the water quality of the Colorado River or a McKinney Roughs pond by conducting the same chemical tests that field scientists use to indicate parameters of dissolved oxygen, pH, air and water temperature, and nitrates. The class will discuss test results and the important balance of all parameters to a healthy ecosystem.
  • Build-a-River - River features study (1 hour-D, 1.5 hours-A)
    Students will experience the flow of a river model and learn about water flow and hydrology. They will learn about the history of the Colorado River, floods, dams, irrigation, and hydropower. The class will work together in groups to build dams in a simulated riverbed and will  discover different river features and see erosion processes at work. Watershed, tributaries, and surface runoff will be discussed.
  • Frankie the Fish - Point and nonpoint source pollution lab (1 hour-D, 1.5 hours-A)
    Students will differentiate between point-source and nonpoint source pollution as they follow the story of Frankie the Fish. Frankie begins life in a state fish hatchery, but he is eventually released into a Texas river. Students will follow Frankie in the river and complete a data and observation sheet of his adventures. As they complete this activity, they will come to recognize how water quality can be altered by human activity within the watershed.
  • Water Coursing Through Time - Water use activity (1 hour-D, A)
    Water is important to all members of a community. As the demand for this finite resource grows, the need to conserve and manage supplies also grows. In this activity, students will simulate changes in a watershed over several rounds of time. In each round, the students will represent different water users whose demands exceed the capacity of the resource. This program encourages students to practice math  skills, evaluate scientific thoughts and social behavior, and discuss environmental concerns in their hometowns.
  • Building an Aquifer - Water cycle and groundwater activity (1 hour-D, A)
    Groundwater is one of Earth’s most valuable natural resources. The water stored in pores, cracks, and openings of subsurface rock material is groundwater. Students will create their own geologic cross section or “earth window” by building aquifers from sand, soil,  pebbles and “clay.” They will then compare the movement of water through these diverse substrates and simulate drilling a well for groundwater.

Land Stewardship

  • A Walk in the Woods - Guided Nature Hike (1 hour-D,1-2 hours-A)
    Students will tread the trails of McKinney Roughs and observe the flora and fauna. The interactions and interdependence of many species can be seen as students observe them in their natural habitat and hear the story of how the Colorado River has helped to shape this land’s history.
  • Foray through the Forest - Guided comparative ecology hike (1.5-2 hours-A)
    Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. But by looking at the trees that compose the unique forest ecological system, students will discover the differences between an oak-hickory woodland and a loblolly pine forest. Each has its own community of organisms that help and hinder the survival of trees and other inhabitants. Student hikers will appreciate the effect of tree cooling as they trek through the trails of McKinney Roughs.
  • Pharmacy in the Forest - Edible and medicinal plant hike (1 hour-D,1.5 hours-A)
    Whether you’re hungry or hurting, the plants of McKinney Roughs are a resource to discover! Native people and pioneers found plants that let them live off the land and cure their ills, from toothaches to tummy troubles. Students will see the value of preserving species diversity as they experience the variety of beneficial plants so close at hand.
  • Puzzling Over Texas Ecoregions - Texas ecoregion lab (1 hour- D, A)
    Students will explore the diversity of the 11 Texas ecoregions! In this hands-on class students will study the similarities and the differences of the natural regions. They will acquire a perspective of how rainfall, geology, plants, animals, and humans have shaped Texas. The students put together a puzzle of the ecoregions and match pictures of all the animals, plants, and geological formations that make each region special.
  • Quercus Village Grid Studies - Oak forest investigation (1.5 hours-D, A)
    Students will get down to the nitty “griddy” of forest studies in this scientific field population investigation. Areas of the forest marked by grids provide opportunities to collect data on abiotic factors as well as on organisms found within the grids. Participants will use scientific instruments to measure and record data, then develop theories explaining the spatial arrangement of trees and the process of natural succession.
  • Native Texas Grasses - Field study of native grasses (1 hour-D, A)
    Green, blue, tall, short—what’s so special about grasses? Students will discover the vital role of grasses in the ecosystem as we mow through the great variety of grass species in Texas and learn the differences between grasses, sedges and forbs. Food chains, prescribed burns, groundwater retention, and soil conservation are all linked in this grassland exploration.
  • Anatomy of a wildfire - Fire ecology hike (2 hours-A)
    Despite the devastating effects to people and property, fire can be a positive force in nature. Although fire and smoke signal major changes to the landscape, naturally occurring forest fires can help maintain a balanced and healthy ecosystem. Central Texas forests have historically been the site of regular wildfires, and resident plants and animals have adapted to survive. Students will investigate the anatomy of a burn, the effect of  weather conditions on the intensity of the blaze, and its consequences to plants and soil.
  • Trees and Keys - Tree ID using dichotomous keys (1.5 hours-D, A)
    Students will learn to unlock the secret to tree identification through learning about role of trees in the environment and differences in leaf and bark morphology. They will then apply their observations of tree characteristics with the use of a dichotomous key to identify common trees. Students will use scientific instruments to determine a tree’s height, diameter, and circumference.
  • Life Under Our Feet - Decomposers (1 hour-A)
    The forest floor is full of flora and fauna taking care of the dirty job of decomposition. Students will sift though leaf litter, using scientific techniques to separate out the miniscule organisms living in the soil and view and identify them under a microscope.
  • Rock On! - Place-based geology (1 hour-D, 1.5 hours-A)
    This class will learn to read the rocks and discover the geologic record telling how the land of Central Texas was formed and what organisms lived here over time. Classroom and field experiences will enable participants to distinguish types of rocks and the stages of the rock cycle. Students will visit special spots on a short hike to uncover rock and fossil specimens that tell the story of McKinney Roughs and how the land earned its name.
  • Mystery Minerals - Mineral ID lab (1 hour-D, A)
    A rock is a rock, right? How do you tell one mineral from another? Geologists look at certain properties that allow them to identify minerals. Students will work in small groups to learn to crack the code by applying one of three physical property tests. Each student then becomes an “expert” who helps students from other groups determine the identity of an unknown mineral specimen.

Wildlife Conservation

  • Nature Sleuths - Animal tracking hike (1.5 hours-A)
    Students will learn to read the signs left by animals as they traveled down the same trails you walk through the mixed hardwood and pine forest of McKinney Roughs. They will discover clues and use their powers of deduction to interpret animal activities! Students will sharpen their  observation skills as they examine the importance of snags (standing dead trees), forest litter, and brush piles. At the same time, they will learn to identify natural resources that were essential to the survival of the first human residents of this area.
  • Survival of the Wettest - Adaptations of Aquatic Vertebrates (1 hour-D, A)
    What are the traits that allow certain vertebrates to survive in an aquatic environment? Participants will get up close and personal with alligators, snakes, turtles, toads, and salamanders to discover the adaptations of eyes, ears, and feet that enable them to thrive in and around the Colorado River.
  • Insect Investigations - Insect Field Study (1-1.5 hours-D, A)
    They creep, they crawl, they fly, they’re everywhere! What are some of the amazing adaptations that have made the insect so successful? Students will discuss the beneficial and harmful behavior of insects and investigate the physical and behavioral characteristics of different insect orders.
  • Animal Trackers - Recognizing Animal Sign (1 hour-D, A)
    Who’s been here? This class will track some local Texas critters using the clues they left behind. Students will discover the secret to identifying elusive animals through tracks and signs and learn about the diet, behavior, and anatomy of these native creatures. Using animal biofacts, students will match the animal with the sign it left behind, then head out to the trail to use their powers of observation to find real animal signs along the trails and meadows of the park.
  • C.S.I. - Carnivore Skull Investigation - Animal skull adaptations (1 hour-D, 1.5 hours-A)
    Students will learn about the diet and habits of mammals by examining the physical features of their skull. Teeth and jaw structure show what percentage of meat or plants was in the animal’s daily diet. They will learn to determine the relative age of the animal by using armadillo and coyote skulls as a case study and, using raccoon skulls, will determine which skull belonged to a male or female. The features of the skull will be measured and compared to see who had the best sense of hearing, sight, and smell and the strongest pheromones. Hands-on stations will emphasize questions that involve measuring, using formulas, comparing and contrasting. Students will use real wildlife skulls in this detailed examination.


Renewable Energy

  • Alternative Energy Boost - Renewable energy lab (1.5 hours- D, A) How will Texas meet increasing demands for energy? What are the alternative energy resources? Students will learn the difference between renewable and nonrenewable resources and learn about the advantages and disadvantages of hydro, solar, wind, and fossil fuels. They will rotate through hands-on work stations that use real wind generators to pump water into a water tower and solar voltaic cells and voltage meters to measure power output. This program will introduce students to renewable energy with fun, interactive, group-led exercises and a real working solar array and wind turbine they will be able to view up close.
  • Sun-sational! - Solar power lab (1 hour- D, A) Students will explore the ways the earth depends on solar energy through interactive exercises. They will discover different ways we use the sun’s energy every day and new ways to conserve energy with the help of the sun. They also will learn how solar energy works by participating in the solar cell simulation game – the students become the photons and electrons that produce energy. The class demonstrates harnessing the power of the sun by racing solar cars in a field right next to a real working solar array!


Nighttime Academy Programs

  • Campfire and S’mores (1 hour- A) The classic outdoor evening experience! Students gather around a campfire to warm their toes and toast marshmallows, while McKinney Roughs staff assist in building the fire and assembling – what else? – s’mores!
  • Stargazing (2 hours- A) “The stars at night are big and bright…!” McKinney Roughs staff will guide your group on a tour through the Texas night sky, revealing the beauty and lore of the constellations and the wonders of galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae.
  • Owl Prowl (1 hour- A) While the people get ready for bed, much of the animal world is just waking up! The mystique of the darkness is revealed as McKinney Roughs staff guide you along the trails at night. Use your sense of hearing to listen for nocturnal critters including the Eastern screech owl and find out “who” or what is active after dark!


  • Where on Earth? - Beginning map reading and compass skills (1 hour- D, A) Students will set their bearings by using the earth’s natural magnetic field! They will learn navigation skills through practice with a compass and map. After learning how to read a topographical map, students also will learn how to uses a compass to shoot a bearing.
  • Navigating Nature - Beginning orienteering (1 hour if combined with previous class, 2 hours without previous program- D, A) This land navigation experience unfolds by further developing students’ basic orienteering techniques with more advanced map-reading skills. These skills will be put to the test as participants practice shooting a bearing and finding clues leading to the solution of a mystery. Students will use a map to navigate through the beautiful woodland and open meadows of McKinney Roughs.
  • Plotting Your Path with GPS - Intro to GPS (2 hours- D, A) Use satellite technology to navigate a nature trail. Students will learn how a Global Positioning System unit works and how to set and follow set waypoints. Data collected at various locations while hiking will enable students to create a trail map by plotting their waypoints on a topographical map of the park.
  • Colorado River Raft Trip (2-3 hours- D, A) Rafting on the Texas Colorado River provides participants with a safe, personal experience as they paddle with a team of fellow floaters. Lessons on river history, the ecology of this riparian system, and the importance of preserving this valuable resource flow through an unforgettable river adventure.


Teambuilding Challenge Course


  • Games and Initiatives (Time varies – D, A) Participants will set their goals high as a trained facilitator guides their group through a series of initiatives designed to promote cooperation, trust, communication, respect, goal-setting and problem-solving. Moving into limited low-course elements allows the group to develop skills in collective achievement and cooperative strategy.
  • Low Course  (Time varies – D, A) A series of team-building activities involving physical and mental trials provide the framework for this challenge course program. Beginning with initiative activities and progressing into more advanced use of low-course elements, participants focus on skills in effective communication, accommodating diversity, and leadership development.
  • High Course  (Time varies – D, A) Participants aim high as they move from activities focused on group interactions to those spotlighting individual accomplishment with group support. The high course provides challenges that have greater interpersonal intensity and leads to building self-esteem, breaking through barriers, and pushing perceived limits.


Schedules and Rates

Natural Science Programs (scheduled by request)Cost per program​​Cost per additional student
​A one–hour program for 60 students or more​$180​$3
​Two–one hour programs for 60 students or more​$360​$6
Rafting and challenge course programs are an additional fee per student. Please contact us for a cost estimate for your group.


​Academy in the Roughs (schedule options)
Requirements: 30 student minimum; school must have student/teacher ratio of 10:1
​Cost for youth participants​Cost for adults, teachers and chaperones
​2 days, 1 night
Price includes 3 catered meals; residency in our climate-controlled dorms equipped with rest rooms and showers on each floor; and approximately 10 hours of programming-if you arrive before lunch on the first day and depart around 1 pm on the second day.
​3 days, 2 nights
Price includes 6 catered meals; residency in our climate-controlled dorms equipped with rest rooms and showers on each floor; and approximately 16 hours of programming-if you arrive before lunch on the first day and depart around 1 pm on the second day.


Ask about scheduling a program: email or call 512-303-5073 or 1-800-776-5272.

​Programs Guide


Download Trail Guide


Features & Events

​Educational/Recreational Outdoor Programs
Challenge Course
Natural Science Programs
River Trips
Summer Nature Camp
Special Features
​Community Programs
Hiker's Trail Guide
Plants and Wildlife
Riding Your Horse
Hiking & Walking Trails​
Horseback Riding
Outdoor Education & Recreation Programs​
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