Students explore biology in Yellowstone classroom

2014-06-28T18:00:00Z 2014-07-31T06:08:22Z Students explore biology in Yellowstone classroomBy LEAH TODD Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
June 28, 2014 6:00 pm  • 

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Will Robinson eyed quietly the handful of moss in his student's palm.

"Is it edible?" asked Eric Hansen, 27.

"I have not tried a bite," Robinson said. "We can be brave."

Robinson and Hansen dabbed their fingertips in the green muck.

"It smells like fish," said Jim Gallup, 28, who had just scraped the moss, dark and dripping, off a nearby lake.

"Don't tell me what's crawling on it," Hansen said.

Together, teacher and students brought a finger to their lips and tasted the slimy goo. After brief eye contact, they shrugged. Gallup tossed what was left into the lake, and the group took off down the trail.

Robinson, 61, helped lead a nine-day summer biology and creative writing class for a handful of Casper College students in Yellowstone National Park earlier this month.

The New York native has taught biology at Casper College since about 1990 and was recently named a Fulbright specialist candidate, making him eligible for grants to travel abroad and present lectures and workshops on his research, which mostly has to do with bees.

It's as if Robinson shares a silent mantra with his students every time he kneels to inspect a plant, poses a leading question or eats moss, which Robinson would call "experimental research."

Explore without hesitation, he tells them, and never stop asking.

Enthralled by nature

Some hikers swivel their heads during a walk. They look at the sky, take in the birds, spot a faraway mountain range.

When Robinson walks, his head is down.

"I'm looking at little things — butterflies, insects, lichens," he said. "I could dig into a rotten log all day and be entertained."

Robinson is the youngest of five children born to a food scientist and housewife in Phelps, N.Y., the sauerkraut capital of the world. As a child, he raised pet moths with his mother.

Robinson tagged along with his dad to a research farm near Cornell University, where his father was a professor.

His resume reads like a grab-bag at a career fair.

Since graduating with a doctorate in the study of honeybees from Cornell in 1980, Robinson was variously a newspaper reporter, oil field roustabout, issues director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council and a United Nations beekeeping consultant in Saudi Arabia and Brazil.

He lives now on a ranch between Glenrock and Douglas on the North Platte River, where he raises bees. He has two sons, 27 and 29, who, like Robinson, play guitar. When Robinson's not working, he's outside.

Teaching the course in Yellowstone, named "The Yellowstone Experience," is a highlight, he said.

In the classroom, some students are shy. But outside, they talk freely. Robinson says whatever comes to his mind while hiking each day with the group.

He doesn't carry his signature clipboard, piled high with notes written in scratchy print. If he hears a question he can't answer, he and the students research it in a field guide or a textbook.

"It shows these young people, the 20-year-olds, that a guy in my position, 60 years old and counting, doesn't have all the answers," Robinson said. "I think that's an important lesson for them."

It's humbling for Robinson, too.

"As long as I've been clamoring through the woods, I still don't have it all figured out," he said.

Busied with bees

Robinson stopped suddenly on the trail to kneel next to a purple flower.

"I just love this," he said. "You can see the anthers sticking way out beyond the petals."

It was mid-morning. Robinson's button-down shirt had made its way out of its tuck inside his pants. A sweat-stained baseball cap was fitted on Robinson's head. "Chang Mai, Thailand," the hat said.

Robinson calls southeast Asia the cradle of honeybee evolution.

He and his wife, Maria Katherman, first saw Thailand in 2009.

They planned to study dwarf honeybees because no one knows how they mate.

He never found them.

He stumbled instead on thousands of migrating giant honeybees creating unusual shelters in and around a mango orchard near a river. Thousands of bees there clung to each other, creating a sort of open-air hive built from their bodies.

In that way, the bees rested for an upcoming long leg of the migration. Some shelters were as tall as Robinson, others the size of a softball.

"That's something hardly anybody's ever seen before," Robinson said. "And nobody's ever seen a spot where these things congregated like this."

These bees liked to dance. Robinson liked to watch.

When preparing for takeoff, they wiggled and curved to signal to their partners how far to travel and where to finally settle down.

After enough afternoons spent watching the bees while wearing nothing but shorts in the Thai heat, Robinson learned their language.

One day, the bees stopped dancing and started darting. They buzzed in and out of the hive, which looked now like boiling black water. Robinson knew where the bees would be headed in several seconds, and he walked squarely into the middle of their path.

He didn't know exactly what would happen, but he couldn't resist.

Moments later, hundreds of thousands of bees loosened their gluelike grip. They lifted from the hive and became a moving black cloud. As one, the bees flew at Robinson, who stood with his wife and struggled to keep his eyes open.

Wind from countless tiny wings rustled the hair on his head and chest, but none hit him. Sweet-smelling excrement flew into his face. Not one bee stung him.

"To me, this bee guy, it was the most adrenaline-full thing I've ever done," he said.

Robinson hopes to go back to the mango orchard one day.

"This place that I found has something really special about it," he said. "People need to look for more of these stopover sites and preserve them."

Conservation and caring

The Casper College group paused on the shore of a quiet lake near the northeast entrance to Yellowstone to write.

Casper College English professor Terry Rasmussen, who along with Robinson led the group of seven students, threaded her reading glasses around each ear. She read aloud an essay from a photocopied booklet.

Robinson opened his book to follow along. But mostly he looked across the lake, at times through a pair of binoculars he carried.

After the students pulled field guides and notebooks from their backpacks, the only sounds were the trickle of a distant creek and the flapping of a bird's wings against the water.

Really good nature writing at some point turns inward and becomes reflective, Rasmussen said. The students will leave the nine-day course with a journal packed with raw material for several poems and essays, which, once turned in, will earn them several credits in English, biology and P.E.

Every night before dinner at a lodge outside Cooke City, students read a draft of a poem or a passage from their journal, she said.

The class is more like a biological merry-go-round of information than an organized seminar. Robinson hollers factoids to the group as the students huff their way up hills and across creeks.

A man once survived for 37 days mostly on the root of a plant now named after him, Evert's thistle, he said. A legend says George Washington's army lived off rock lichen one awful winter.

Sometimes, the tidbits stick.

"Before, I was forgetting what class the leeches were in," said Alex Schaan, 19. "Now I can actually remember it."

If there is a synthesis — one overarching theme Robinson wants his students to take home — it's how to manage and preserve the Earth's natural resources.

"In every class I teach, I'm teaching conservation," he said.

With plenty of land and very few people, Wyoming offers unique opportunities to preserve species that have been decimated in other parts of the country, like prairie dogs, wolves and sage grouse.

That's why he harps on plant and animal names, quizzing students on what might otherwise be boring Latin words tracking an organism's genus and species.

"Knowing the name of something makes you want to learn a little bit more about it," Robinson said. "And if you know a little bit more about it, you might start to care about its future."

James Goossen

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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