The Saratoga Sun -

Eighth graders get campy

Middle school students get hands-on lessons in Grand Teton National Park


Courtesy of Laurie Cooksey

SMS eighth grader Dallys Chitwood examines elk teeth.

Students in New York City may take a field trip to the Empire State Building. For kids in San Antonio, Tex., it's the Alamo. Here in the Good Times Valley, students get to take advantage of Grand Teton National Park.

From May 13 to 18, 14 Saratoga Middle School (SMS) eighth graders took a class trip to Grand Teton National Park to learn about ecosystems and biology in a pristine natural classroom. Accompanying them were SMS eighth grade teacher Shaleas Harrison and chaperone Laurie Cooksey, who Harrison said is "known for her great photography skills."

The educational adventure was done through the Teton Science School (TSS) "whose mission is to connect people, nature and place through education, science and stewardship," according to the TSS website. "The school focuses on place-based learning," Harrison said. By her reckoning, this creates a deeper and more resonant connection to the subject matter for participating students.

Students slept in cabins at night, and spent most of their days out in the park. Lessons largely revolved around observation and experimentation, and students were encouraged to draw their own conclusions from the data they gathered. Along with study of native plants and animals, students conducted water-quality experiments in the Snake River and participated in team building activities.

The goal of the field trip was more than "just hiking around in the park," Harrison said. Instead, the trip was the culmination of an anthropogenic climate change unit the students studied during the last part of the school year.

In the unique mountain environs, Harrison said students were able to see beetle-killed forests and shrinking glaciers first-hand. These tangible reminders of how rapidly and irreversibly natural environments can be changed served as powerful lessons in ecosystems and resource management for SMS students, Harrison said.

Courtesy of Laurie Cooksey

Grass and soil replaced desks and books in the "outdoor classrooms" of the Teton Science Camp.

Although 2016 was only Harrison's second time leading the field trip, she says that outing has been a historical tradition for SMS students going back to at least the 1970s. "My kids' parents have been on the same trip when they were in the eighth grade," she said.

A price tag of nearly $500 per student meant that the eighth grade class had to do several fundraising projects over the course of the academic year to pay their way to the Tetons. With hard work and community support however, the SMS students were able to gather the money needed for the trip, which was, by any measure, a grand success.

"The science school said they were one of the best groups they've had," Harrison said proudly. Seventh grade students can look forward to their own adventure in the mountains next year.


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