PHOTO COURTESY RENEE ZIMMERMAN

Learning naturally

4th graders get hands-on learning in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park has inspired countless poets, writers, politicians, dreamers and children since it was established by Congress on March 1, 1872, as the world’s first national park. Since 1985, Expedition: Yellowstone! has been inspiring school children as a more formal and consistent method of teaching appreciation of the natural world – it is a park ranger-led curriculum-based residential program. Big Sky kids have now been involved for nearly two decades. Jeremy Harder said a former fourth-grade teacher at Ophir Elementary got the ball rolling to get Big Sky kids involved in the Yellowstone adventure. Harder took over the trip when he accepted his position teaching the fourth grade in 2000. “It’s a nationwide event and luckily we created a local and strong relationship with the crew at Yellowstone to make it successful,” he said. 

In April, 30 Ophir Elementary School fourth-graders ventured into Yellowstone National Park accompanied by nine chaperones for the expedition, teachers Renee Zimmerman and Suzie Klein explained. “This is a program that emphasizes hands-on, outdoor activities and exploration of Yellowstone that most visitors never see. Our students begin learning and preparing for this monumental trip on the first day of school. The fourth-grade curriculum is set up in and around this place-based learning that happens while researching and collaborating in the classroom,” Zimmerman said. The Yellowstone National Park website explains that groups of up to 40 teachers, students and chaperones live in Yellowstone for four to five days. The curriculum has 69 different lessons and includes a lesson in Yellowstone’s legacy – “which teaches about the history of preservation as well as ways we protect our natural and cultural resources today”. Also included in the program is a discussion of the history of humans in the park, as well as geology and ecology. Students also learn about geyser basins, archaeological sites and animal track identification.

Expedition: Yellowstone! is a cost recovery program, meaning fees cover supplies and salaries, but scholarships are available for qualifying students.

Zimmerman and Klein explained the funding methods for Big Sky kids: The students received pledges toward skating laps at the local skating rink (BSSHA).

“The money they raised provided gas for the bus, the driver, EY SWAG, and a yummy treat after a week of hard work and learning. We also receive money annually from our amazing Parent Teacher Organization to help us get to Exploration: Yellowstone!,” Zimmerman said. “We want to thank our PTO and all of our parents, families and all the community members that help make this such a special trip each year.”

According to the Yellowstone National Park website, the program was created when park managers realized the survival of the park and of the natural world was dependent on the next

generation. "It is an incalculable added pleasure to anyone's sum of happiness if he or she grows to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature,” Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States said.

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