Teton Science School: the classroom is the great outdoors

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

We stand in prairie grass up to the ears, searching. Peter Blake, 13, from Big Timber, Mont., and Karen Bunning, 12, from Rock Springs, Wyo., are on a ''scavenger hunt.'' After three hours of foraging through dense brush, they have gathered a grab bag of wildlife evidence: elk, moose, and beaver droppings; descriptions of deer and moose tracks; an owl pellet; and the huge jawbone of an elk.

Such is the bounty of learning about your environment at Teton Science School.

Set in the resplendent natural beauty of Grand Teton National Park, the school is a trail-blazer in the field of environmental education.

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''A marvelous entree to the natural and scientific worlds,'' says renowned geologist David Love about the school, which is fulfilling a need not met ''anywhere else in the US.''

Started in 1967 by high school biology teacher Ted Major, Teton Science School has grown from a single six-week summer program for high school students to a year-round facility offering courses for all ages.

Although there are a dozen or so similar schools in the country, Teton Science School (TSS) is unique, says Love, because its courses ''range from coldest winter to hottest summer, from alpine to desert; with that broad spectrum, there's something for everybody.''

In fact, the school's highly respected one-week ''Winter Ecology'' course now draws groups from high schools and colleges around the United States to this converted dude ranch at the east end of the national park. TSS also presents an annual speaker series that has offered such notables as the late Buckminster Fuller, former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and authors Peter Mathiesson, Barry Lopez, and Wendell Berry.

''I'm very impressed with the place,'' says Mr. Lopez, whose nature writing has won awards. ''A solid grounding in the biological sciences is very important in understanding the environment - they take that very seriously.''

It is the way the school goes about providing that grounding that makes TSS so different: The classroom is the outdoors.

''We specialize in 'experiential education,' '' says Jeff Hardesty, program director at TSS. Hardesty, a tall, slender man with blue eyes and an inviting smile, is sitting over a breakfast of Granola, pear halves, and herbal tea. Near him, 17 junior high students are clattering around the log cabin dining room, cleaning up.

Today is ''Mammals Day'' here at the school, which meant a 6 a.m. trek through the wilderness for this junior high class. The dining hall is abuzz with talk of their morning's discoveries - of animals found in safe research traps they'd set the night before (today's lesson involves learning the scientific uses of trapping) and the tracks they saw.

Continues director Hardesty: ''Our aim is to educate people about their natural environment, hoping that they will go into the future making wiser decisions. And we place them in real-life situations.'' Just recently, he explains, the school took a class to a court hearing about the future of Jackson Lake Dam - where a proposed repair project could have damaging effects on local fishing, tourism, and the wildlife habitat.

But TSS is not just out to persuade students of a certain philosophy. Recently, he says - to present all angles of the ongoing problem of elk management in the area - the school brought in a local hunting outfitter and spokesmen from the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the National Elk Refuge. After hearing their presentations, the students had to resolve the issue for themselves.

Christie Schultz, a high school senior from St. Louis, Mo., recently finished the six-week high school program at TSS. Her response? ''I've never grown so much in my whole life.'' It's an experience, says Ms. Schultz, which has helped her toward a career in biology and writing.

Young people aren't the only ones to benefit from TSS programs. Out in a meadow behind the lodge, a group of adults are peering intently into a clump of fireweed. Dr. Allan Stokes - for 24 years a teacher and noted expert on animal behavior (at one time he worked under famed naturalist Aldo Leopold) - is teaching the class about bee pollination. This five-day animal behavior course is just one of a large number of one- to eight-day seminars for adults, many of them for college credit.

Perhaps the school's unique feature is the Adolph and Olaus Murie Study Skins Collection - a vast gathering of stuffed animal skins now residing in the loft of a barn. Hardesty explains the collection's significance: ''You can take kids out to a river bottom area and see 20 bird species, but you can't go up and hold them or see them very close - but here you can.''

Helen Mary Williams, director of Outward Bound Adventures in Pasadena, Calif. - a nonprofit organization specializing in outdoor education for inner-city kids - says it is this kind of experience ''that has helped our people (youth from the Watts area of Los Angeles) go on to college and make a big contribution.

The chief reason for those kinds of results, says TSS teacher Jeff DePew, is the school's rigorous program. Through mountain climbs, overnight hikes, and other outdoors experiences, he says, ''they've been stressed, they've been challenged ... academically, morally, and even spiritually. Adds David Love, ''This is no 'bed and bottle joint'; drugs, dope, and sex are out.'' If they're found, says Love, ''kids are dismissed.''

''We tell them,'' says Depew, '' 'What you've gained here, in terms of yourself, the natural world around you, take back with you. If you don't, and leave it here, you don't do this place justice.' ''

Apparently, justice has been done. Lynn Overtreeof Sherman Oaks, Calif., went through the high school program a few years back. Recently, she was on Mt. St. Helens with a biological field study from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Another California student, a scholarship winner from Watts, went on to Stanford and now works at Mrs. Williams's Outward Bound Adventures in Pasadena. A third, Coleen Cabot, is today director of Teton Science School.

When asked about the school's impact on the area, Ms. Cabot explains that five years ago many people felt the Grand Teton-Yellowstone ecosystem was a solitary wilderness area rapidly losing ground to development and tourism. ''Now there's a new (environmental) coalition in Yellowstone and a renewed sense of management. The Science School plays an important part in that, because we're the only ones dealing with (teaching) these issues in the area.''

You can be sure that influence - like the youth that come to Teton Science School - will continue to grow.

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