When learning’s an adventure

The San Juan Mountains provide high-altitude science lab

Calling all future scientists.

That is exactly what a new regional science, wilderness and culture camp for families is doing, with hopes of changing the world and building the region’s economy simultaneously.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Ali Sabeti, former World Bank executive and business adviser at Fort Lewis College. “You’re educating kids, getting parents involved and creating critical economic activity.”

Alpine EdVentures, the newest family camp program at Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton, had a trial run last weekend with the helping hand of an impressive cadre of observers and participants from the worlds of science and academia to perfect the program before its official launch next summer. Several local college professors, scientists and cultural experts brought their children to test the program that will incorporate advanced learning in natural sciences and Southwest culture.

“You can tell they’re mountain kids,” said Mountain Studies Institute Director Marcie Bidwell, because the children and their parent and grandparent escorts had no trouble navigating the steep 400-foot climb to study pika habitat on an Ophir Pass mountaintop. “They did really well.”

The families did in-depth study in the field and classroom on high-altitude animal habitats, ground water science and scientific procedure over the three-day Silverton excursion. The trial program involved cultural storytellers, rigorous mountain climbs, treks through mud-bogged watersheds and hands-on scientific experiments.

The program is family-oriented, based on studies that conclude ongoing parental involvement and interaction is key to fostering a child’s interest and ability in science.

“This is exactly what they need,” said Mary Ann Goff, a professor at FLC who observed and participated in the weekend program. “This kind of hands-on engagement with science and their parents is key to pulling children in.”

The children, whose ages ranged from 7 to 10, said they loved the Alpine EdVentures experience. Seven-year-old Kai Skowlund’s review of “really fun” was a common one among the youngsters. One boy thanked his mother repeatedly throughout the trip. And the children were excited to share what they learned with anyone who would listen.

“Pika get their water from the holes and crevices in the rocks,” said Thomas Ferrell, 7.

“The ground was bubbling at the fen,” said an excited Patrick Rowan, 9.

Their chaperones were equally enthusiastic.

Robert Ferrell, who is an astrophysicist and Thomas Ferrell’s father, said he’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“The pika scrambling on the rocks, the views, this is an incredible playground,” Ferrell said. “I liked the way it worked having me and my son both involved so we have that shared experience. We both learned a lot.”

Participant Nancy Sanders, a former marine biologist turned stay-at-home mom, called the program “awesome” and said, “it’s all hands-on, and that’s the best way to learn.”

Karen and Richard Rowan, who brought their grandson Patrick Rowan, said the challenging nature of the program impressed them most.

“They’re teaching up to the kids, not teaching down, and they’re doing it through all of the senses,” Richard Rowan said.

As Alpine EdVentures grows in the coming years, program officials said they expect cultural tours, train rides and other area learning and tourist attractions in Durango, Silverton and the surrounding areas will be included for visitors.

With adequate financial help from the community this year to get the program going, hundreds of families from outside the area could pass through the program each summer, Sabeti said, bringing with them crucial tourism dollars.

“We’re hoping this will have a big economic impact,” Sabeti said.

During the first official summer season of the program in 2012, program officials estimate about 100 families will travel to the area to attend.

Package prices and donations will help fund a scholarship program for science-inclined children from low-income families locally and around the nation, Bidwell said.

Negotiations also are under way to provide area schools and home-school groups with affordable field-trip opportunities.

And program officials hope to write collaborative agreements with other tourist- and wilderness-based programs in the region, such as Crow Canyon Archaeological and the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum.

The program eventually could serve as many as 10,000 locals and tourists each year through a plethora of packages designed to suit childrens’ interests and their families’ physical capabilities, Bidwell said. Camp options for families that deal with physical disabilities, choices for the avid mountain adventurers who prefer a more physically challenging camp experience, and options for those with a strong interest in cultural learning are expected as the program grows, Bidwell said.

And growth is likely, according to the families that tested the program hoping to find a new way to make learning a family experience.

“It doesn’t get much better than this,” Sanders said while watching her son, 8-year-old Brennain Degenhardt, document pika calls in his journal.

hscofield@durangoherald.com

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