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Teton Science School: the classroom is the great outdoors

By David WilckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 13, 1984

Kelly, Wyo.

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.

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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.

''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.