Students leading a forest health field trip on Wednesday
By Mary Slosson
Associate Editor Dec 14, 2014
From left, U.S. forester Roy Mask, Telluride Mountain School students Sylvan Bald, Chandler Bennett, Makenna Craige, teacher Tucker Szymkowicz and student Olivia Nogueira-Wheaton learn about spruce beetles on the Valley Floor. Szymkowicz and his environmental science class students will be offering a forest field trip for the community on Wednesday in Mountain Village.
Tucker Szymkowicz’s environmental science class at the Telluride Mountain School is flipping education on its head. Instead of staying indoors and reading textbooks about the local ecosystem, the class has been in the field all semester learning from professional foresters and environmental advocates, witnessing forest health problems and potential solutions firsthand.
Senior Bobbie Cooney can attest to the power that type of experiential education has had.
“I moved here last year from a public high school of about 600 people in the suburbs of Houston, and I never went outside. I would read all of the stuff in the textbook and not know what was going on,” Cooney said. “To have the ability to walk outside our school and see all these problems and the solutions first hand has been just amazing.”
“You can’t find the answers to real life things in textbooks,” she added.
As it turns out, Szymkowicz’s class learned so much from their time in the field that they’ve spent the second half of the semester reaching out to the community and teaching others about the health of the region’s trees.
“Students make a great conduit of information because they’re young and passionate and they’re speaking at a level that is a layman’s level. It’s easier for the general public to understand,” Szymkowicz said.
“Once you become a specialist, your language and your skill set maybe isn’t as similar to be able to connect with the general public whereas these guys, they’re really easily able to adapt information to a palatable form for the general public,” he added.
Szymkowicz said that the idea to turn education into action this semester came entirely from his students, who decided they wanted to do public-facing work with an impact instead of a final research paper or test, even if it meant more planning and preparation outside of school hours.
“They’re doing it all. I just oversee it,” he said. “The biggest thing we could do is educate the public. That’s where we might be the most effective. I was pretty happy that was the outcome they selected.”
The five-person class gave a presentation at an intergovernmental meeting in November that included San Miguel County commissioners, members of the Telluride and Mountain Village town councils and both Telluride Mayor Stu Fraser and Mountain Village Mayor Dan Jansen.
“Speaking to the town council was a little nerve-wracking, but it was fun,” said junior Sylvan Bald. “It’s good to try out different experiences like that.”
Szymkowicz is the head of experiential education at the Mountain School, and has certainly promoted that ethos in his own classroom.
His five students started the semester learning about issues plaguing local forests, beginning with bark beetles and sudden aspen decline, but quickly moved deeper into the dozens of diseases, insects and climate triggers like drought that affect the health of local trees.
The students went on field trips with a range of experts, including Mountain Village forester Dave Bangart, U.S. Forest Service Forest Health Protection expert Roy Mask, forester Nicole Hackman and Sheep Mountain Alliance Executive Director Hilary Cooper.
Junior Chandler Bennett said being from a mountain town like Telluride has really hammered home the issues of climate change and environmental stress.
“We’ve grown up in it, learning about it, just from being here. It applies to our daily lives,” Bennett said. “Our generation is really emphasizing fixing these things.”
And now, the students have learned so much from their time in Telluride’s forests that they want to share their newfound knowledge with the community at large.
The Telluride Mountain School environmental science class will be leading a community meeting on forest health Wednesday from 1-3 p.m. on the Jurassic Trail in Mountain Village. Everyone is welcome to attend and learn about the local environment.
“One of the best ways you can learn is by teaching,” said junior Olivia Nogueira-Wheaton. “When you are confident enough in the subject that you can tell someone how interesting and how cool it is, and how you should know this, you get more pumped about it.”
Classmate Makenna Craige agreed.
“You’re not only getting taught, but you’re teaching to others and getting them involved. I like that,” she said.
The ultimate lesson the students will communicate with the public on Wednesday is that climate change and forest health are big, broad subjects, but everyone can do something to help address them.
“Everyone can do something. It is the environment, and it’s ours,” Nogueira-Wheaton said. “Our class purpose is to bring the first step to the people, which is knowing about it. You can’t do anything until you actually know about it. Knowledge, education and then action.”