Re:The Living Classroom Program Takes Science to Its Source | Pinhead Notes From the Field
by Mila Re
Aug 08, 2007 | 335 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“For many of us, our high school science experience was limited to planting a bean in a cup and watching it grow,” said Alessandra Jacobson, director of the Telluride Institute’s Bridal Veil Living Classroom program.

This was not the case for five students from Telluride and Norwood High Schools who have participated in Jacobson’s Bridal Veil Living Classroom program in recent months.

The summer section of the program took place along the highest of a series of 25 meter-squared longterm biodiversity monitoring plots in the San Miguel River drainage.

These plots are visited maybe once or twice a year by high school classes at schools within the watershed; this summer, however, the Telluride Institute Watershed Education Project adopted the high-lying plots for an intensive science experience conducted by five high-school students, Sarah Carlson, Madison Crowell, Skylar Hollinbeck, Josey Griffith and Sandy Royer.

To that end, the group convened in July for a five-day field session regarding relevant biological sciences and conservational issues at Bridal Veil Basin, each day working with different educators.

“Birding is the easiest way to monitor an ecosystem,” ornithologist Coen Dexter told the group on day one. “If a species is going down, then there is a reason and the problem can then be identified.” Dexter pointed out several species of birds, including the rare Black Swifts that make their homes nestled on cliffs under waterfalls. 

Most activities took place at a base camp, a ten-minute walk from the Bridal Veil Power Station, where students learned everything from establishing monitoring plots to taking soil samples and temperature readings. 

Later in the week, botanist Yvette Henson focused the group on the anatomy of flower and key plant species, and entomologist Chester Anderson led activities involving aquatic insect life and the biodiversity of streams.

Each day, the group monitored plots, took standard data measurements and went birding. 

On the third day of the program, the entire group hiked up another 2,000 feet to a high-altitude camp near Blue Lake, to spend two nights camping and studying in a new environment, while Dr. Julia Cole, professor of atmospheric sciences and geosciences at the University of Arizona, discussed the effects on the alpine zone of climate change.

“A lot of people really don’t realize what they are doing to the environment because it takes time for the changes to occur,” 11th grader Royer said later.

U.S. Forest Service botanist Barry Johnston educated the group on vegetation-monitoring in the high country, and about threats posed by invasive plant species. 

At the end of the week, high-school junior Griffith was hypothesizing that the American pika population would be greater at a higher elevation due to increase in ideal habitat and cooler temperatures, and junior Carlson announced plans to study the aquatic insect diversity of Bridal Veil Creek, postulating a higher diversity at lower site (12,000 ft. vs. 10,600 ft.) due to the canopy. 

The students seem to agree; “I learned more in this program than in my three years of high school science,” said Hollinbeck, a high-school senior. 

High-school junior Craig praised “the power of nature’s embrace” for breaking down stereotypes, so that by the end of the five-day program, they were “teaching one another.”

The students head back into the field this month to test their theories, collecting data for each one’s scientific research paper stating their findings, which will be presented during the school year to their peers (and in a special presentation to the community in December). Some of their materials will be used as a teaching tool for the next group of students in the Living Classroom program in 2009.

This program is made possible in part by funding from organizations such as Coutts and Clark Western Foundation, The Telluride Foundation, Telluride Institute, Just for Kids Foundation and Zoline Foundation, and by staffers Jacobson and her co-worker, Darcy Craig.  “I’m teaching what I am passionate about,” says Jacobson. “My goal is to inspire the next generation to care about their natural surroundings and the impact they have on nature,” furthering her belief that “the more you know, the more you will care.”

The Telluride Institute plans to continue bringing college-level and professional scientists to Bridal Veil Basin, to work on establishing a long-term pika monitoring program assessing the effect of climate change on the uphill migration of pika.  Also pitching in: The Silverton-based Mountain Studies Institute, in collaboration with the Telluride Institute, for a high-alpine lake sampling program for mercury deposition, a byproduct of coal-powered energy plants in the Four Corners region. The Living Classroom Program was begun in 2002 by Pinhead Institute and the Smithsonian Conservation Research Center.

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