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It’s National Park Week!

Great Western Experience 2004

This week you can enter free at more than 100 national parks that usually charge entrance fees.*  I plan to have all three of my blogs centered around the National Parks this week.  In today’s blog, I want to share with you a program from my recently past days of teaching.  I taught High School Biology for the past 35 years (and retired last year).  Back in 1995 our Science Department (made up of four science teachers) committed to a crazy plan.  Because of our own personal commitments, many of our courses had an environmental theme running through many of the concepts taught during the semester.  A problem that we identified was the lack of opportunity for our rural students to have personal experiences that would help them better understand the ‘Gobal Nature’ of their Ecosystems. Many of our students had not traveled out the Central Michigan area.

Hiking in Yosemite

The ‘Plan’ was to make a small number of students (12-18) Ambassadors for the National Park System.  We would take these students on a 16 day trip through a number of National Parks every two years.  My family had made numerous trips to Yellowstone in the past, so I had some experience with which to plan a trip to the Nation’s first National Park.  On this trip, we would visit; Badlands National Park, Mt Rushmore National Monument, Devil’s Tower National Monument, Yellowstone and Tetons National Park.

Cooking Dinner

We planned to ‘pick’ our students in spring of ’95 and then take the trip 14 months later in the summer of ’96.  This would give the students time to raise money for their trip and for us to meet with them once a month to educate them about the NPS and for them to plan out their trip.  During these meetings, they were broken into permanent groups of three.  Their group was responsible for planning three days of meals and creating a grocery list for their needs.  On three of their non-cooking days, the group would have KP duties.  Each group also had a National Park topic to research before and during the trip.  They would create a presentation with this information once back.  In these meetings, they would also learn about camping, cooking and hiking in the NPS.

We called our ‘class’ (the students received high school credit for participating), The Great Western Experience (GWE).  The pictures included in this post are from the 2004 GWE.  By 2004, we were alternating our trips; one GWE would go the north route to Yellowstone and the next would go south to the Grand Canyon and Utah National Parks.  We were fortunate in that our school allowed us to take 3 of their Vans on these trips (and yes, they did occasionally break down!).  We also included teachers from other departments as chaperones.   We usually had 6-7 teachers along on each trip.

Hiking down from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Hiking down from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

The student selection process morphed a little over the years.  Basically, students had to fill out a multipage application that sought to find out about their experience with camping/hiking, technology and leadership.  They then would go through an interview with all the chaperones.  From this, each chaperone would rank the students.  We, chaperones, would then meet and pick what we felt were the final group.

Creating and Posting the Daily Log

In this selection process, we would also give some extra value to ‘skills’ we thought we would need for the trip.  For example, we would try to have several students that had well advanced technical skills. On all the trips, we tried to post daily updates ‘from the field’ of our experiences for parents and others to see back home.  This proved to be quite the challenge in the early trips of ’96 and ’98.  In 1996 we used a Sony Mavica to take digital that we could up load to the young web.  On the 2004 trip, we had several digital point and shoots.  I had my first DSLR along (a Nikon D100).

The 2004 trip was our second ‘south’ trip to the Grand Canyon.  We got a little over ambitious with this trip.  Instead of going to three of the National Parks in southern Utah, we decided to travel farther west from the Grand Canyon to another ‘Jewell’ of the NPS.  We went to Yosemite.  While in California, we also took a day and went to Monterey Bay Aquarium (and whale watching). The extra sight seeing was very rewarding, but the additional time in the vans wore us out!

Upon returning from the trip, we would meet for a week in the school media center and put together our presentation, and material for our group assignments.  That fall, a presentation would be made at a board meeting.  Some of the years, students were also responsible for giving a presentation to a community group.

Looking back, almost 100 students have participated in GWE.  I’ve made some life long friends (both teachers and students) through the process.  We have heard time and again from various students about the impact that these experiences have had on their lives.  Time will tell though, how successful the ‘Ambassador’ side of our program has worked.

If you haven’t, I strongly encourage you to visit a national park this year.  Many of them are being threatened, either politically or environmentally.  At some point we will be asked to vote on measures that affect the NPS.  It would be nice to have first hand experience from which to construct our opinion.

If you are a former ‘GWE-er’ (from any year), I would appreciate you commenting on your experience with this program below.


2 Responses

  1. GWE. What an awesome, amazing experience. I not only learned about the national parks, but learned a ton about myself. I think that it’s fair to say that I am a different person because of that trip. I love the national parks so much…that I chose it for my senior year family vacation and took my husband there for our honeymoon. My 2 1/2 year old looks at the pictures displayed as artwork in my home and asks to go see the mountains…and I tell him I will take him…as soon as he is a little bigger. Thank you for introducing me to GWE.

  2. GWE was one of the most memorable trips of my life. Our very first night, we drove through a series of tornadoes, and finished the trip with 3 days in Nebraska at over 100 degrees due to a broken down van. In between, we made it to 7 different National Parks including a hike in the Grand Canyon, to this day, still one of the hardest physical things I have ever done…..worth every step. Dan Silverthorn should have been give a medal, I think I saw him running up the trail. We survived the rafting trip down the Moab, although picture evidence would suggest otherwise, I did help Mike Hale paddle our 2-man raft though the white water. The best hike of the trip was up Estes Cone in RMNP, not the most difficult, but a unique combination of trails and free climbing up rocks. Thank you for such a great experience

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