CASPER, Wyo. — The boys huddled around the foot-long chunk of wood, debating how to improve on nature.
The task: Build a flotation device from objects found in nature to float a wood block “wagon” in a shallow creek. The boys tested a large piece of bark and tied on smaller pieces of bark to add support from the side.
The raft failed the first in-water test. The boys reconvened, moved the supports around. On the second try, the raft and wood block stayed afloat. Witnesses, the boys' fifth-grade classmates at Southridge Elementary, clapped at the success, anxious to find out if their own rafts would pass the test.
The wood block represented a covered wagon used by pioneer families traveling the Oregon Trail. When faced with streams and rivers, pioneers often floated their wagon across the water.
Pioneers also searched for food and sought shelter during late-spring snowstorms, and Southridge students did the same on Tuesday. Students hiked around the Audubon Center at Garden Creek while building shelters and learning about how animals use wildlife camouflage for protection from hunters.
Graduate students from the Teton Science School in Jackson visited two Casper schools to teach science and history this week. In-class and outside lessons were part of the school's two-week outreach tour.
The one-year graduate program awards students credit toward master's degrees at five participating colleges and universities. Most students seek teaching degrees, but some continue to study conservation or recreation resources management.
The program rotates between classes such as ecological inquiry or principles of place-based education and a couple of weeks teaching. Most hands-on teaching occurs at the school in Grand Teton National Park.
During the outreach weeks, students visit schools and work with teachers to plan lessons within the school's curriculum. While they were in Saratoga last month, lessons focused on the Saratoga Lake watershed.
School visits enrich the teaching experience, said Doug Connelly, a professor in the graduate program. Graduate students teach a range of students in different situations — urban, rural, Indian, elementary, high school.
“We give them a diversity of teaching opportunities,” Connelly said. “By the end, they get a sense of what they want to teach.”
Student Ben Johnson enrolled in the graduate program after dabbling in other things, led by an interest in sustainable agriculture education and school gardens.
Teaching in the Tetons is easier than in Saratoga and Casper because of the abundance of outdoor possibilities within the park.
“It's important that they have that here, too,” Johnson said.
Southridge students have the best of both worlds: They previously visited the Teton Science School.
This year, fifth-graders are learning about environments. Natrona County has a lot of areas that could teach environmental science — it's just a matter of finding them, said teacher Megan Propp. She said her students learn better outdoors.
“For a lot of them, it's what they do — it's what they know,” Propp said. “It's not just science — it's working as a team.”
The boys who floated the wood block agreed. They said they'd rather be tramping around in the woods building structures than watching snow fall from inside a classroom.
“We have to come up with our own ideas,” said fifth-grader Zane Snell. “If you're just doing science in a book, no one will see it.”
Snell said science exists outside of textbooks — his dad uses science on the job in the oil field.
Classmate Ty Hamsher said he learned best outside, getting his hands dirty.
“Outside, you don't have to look at pictures — you get to look at it yourself,” Hamsher said.
“I don't remember pictures, but I remember field trips.”
Contact Jackie Borchardt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-266-0593.