Rebuilding Field Education at TSS for 2022

Teton Science Schools Field Education is excited to be in the midst of rebuilding. We’re proud of how we’ve weathered the pandemic, with small-scale, non-residential program offerings mostly focused on the local Jackson community, and at the same time, we are so excited to have full, bustling campuses again. The goal is to be up and running at full capacity at our Jackson and Kelly campuses by March and to bring the Murie Ranch back onboard by April as usual. We’re also in the midst of hiring several positions, including instructor and lead instructor positions. As we rebuild, we welcome inquiries from our partners regarding job opportunities in Field Education, program opportunities here in the Tetons, or any other ideas for collaboration and partnership. 

What we mean when we say field education

The term has become so familiar to folks around Teton Science Schools that we can forget it’s not an everyday word elsewhere. Simply put, field education is learning about a place by being in that place- observing and experiencing it with all your senses- usually in the company of others. An educator comes alongside and as an experienced guide who knows the trails and the natural history, has a special talent for inviting you into a state of wonder, and keeps an eye out for those unplanned moments when an osprey on the wing or tracks in the snow can be the best teacher of all. 

A long tradition of learning beyond the classroom

This simple idea inspired Ted Major, who came to Jackson Hole to work as a science teacher in the 1960’s, to take students out of the classroom and into nature to learn. What Ted started as a summer field ecology course for twelve high school students eventually grew into a stand-alone school with year-round offerings. TSS field education programs draw an average of 7,000-8,000 school-aged learners from across the U.S. and sometimes beyond its borders. Most groups spend about a week at TSS building connections with their classmates, educators, and the surrounding ecosystem. For schools that have been coming to TSS for a while, our programs serve as significant rites of passage for their students- experiences they anticipate for years and hear about from older schoolmates. 

Stories from the field

But to really understand the meaning of field education, it’s best to either experience it firsthand or hear stories from the field. Ask anyone who has spent time as an educator in field settings to tell you some memorable tales and you’re probably going to be there a while. Here’s one of mine…

I had recently joined the Field Education team at TSS as a faculty member in the Graduate Program and was still perpetually awestruck by the view of the Tetons from the Kelly Campus and the mid-summer show of wildflowers. As part of my onboarding, I was shadowing a visiting group of teens who were part of a conservation leadership program through a non-profit in Illinois. Not a single participant had visited Grand Teton National Park before. They were adjusting to the altitude, the food, the mountains, and a long list of other things that were new about this place. 

On this particular morning, the group leaders had set their sights on a challenging hike to one of the alpine lakes in the Park. The switchbacks were numerous and the teens were edging into Type 2 fun (miserable while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect). One young woman needed to take frequent breaks and at a certain point, a TSS staff member and I determined it would be best for a smaller group of us to turn around and rejoin everyone else closer to the trailhead. The young woman was just as relieved as she was disappointed to turn back. As we descended the trail, my colleague and I tried our best to encourage her to celebrate all that she had accomplished that day, rather than focus on the lake she wasn’t going to see. 

Rounding a bend, movement to the side of the trail caught our eye. And at just a safe enough distance to savor the moment, we watched a black bear cub playfully balance on a log while mama bear keeping an eye on things. We wordlessly exchanged expressions of amazement and carried on down the trail. “Have you ever seen a bear before?” we asked this participant. “No!” came the immediate response. Then the moment of realization, “If we hadn’t turned back, we probably wouldn’t have seen bears today.” Finally free to revel in her accomplishment, a bright smile lit up this young woman’s face as she accepted this gift from the wild.

About ten minutes later, the rest of the group caught up with us, all smiles from their adventure. Many of them, I noticed, went out of their way to high-five and greet the woman who had turned back a bit early. Of course, we told them about the bears. But no one else had seen them.

Field Education leads students into beautiful and wild places.

Who is field education?

Although we tend to have new school groups on a regular basis, some groups have been coming to TSS for decades. For instance, a partnership between TSS and two public high schools in South Central Los Angeles, California that began in 1999 lives on as a leadership-themed program that brings urban teens to the Tetons for a weeklong immersion in empowering leadership, hands-on science, and community building. On the other end of the geographic spectrum, Ten Sleep Elementary, a rural Wyoming school in a town of 200, has been bringing young students to our Kelly Campus since 2011. Another unique partnership exists between TSS and an entire school district in Columbia, Missouri. Each June, over the span of four weeks, several hundred students from the district experience two of the most iconic national parks in the United States while guided by TSS field instructors. 

And of course, we have to mention our longest-running program of all, the Jackson Hole Science Expedition, which dates back to the start of TSS in 1967. The legacy of scientific adventure that began with Ted Major all those years ago lives on with this three-week program for high school-aged students that is a deep-dive exploration of place and community through science in frontcountry and backcountry settings.

None of these stories, school partnerships, or student experiences would be possible without our dedicated and passionate field instructors, trained and supported by a vibrant team of faculty and directors. We ask a lot of our educators. Their job includes keeping themselves and their students comfortable and safe in places where grizzlies and buffalo roam and temperatures can dip well below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Their list of learning objectives on a typical day in the field might include: teaching students that have never seen snow how to cross-country ski, adaptations of plants and animals that aid winter survival, some of the ways that glaciers have shaped this ecosystem, and building an intentional culture through the creation of shared values. It’s all in a day for field education at TSS and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Students cross-country skiing, some for the first time.

In March of 2020, all of the hum and activity surrounding field education came to a sudden stop as our programming was suspended in the wake of a novel disease and global pandemic. As it became increasingly apparent that visiting school groups would not be on campus anytime soon, the bulk of our field teaching and administrative staff was furloughed and then laid off, dispersing out to other organizations in the community and far beyond the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It was hard to predict anything at that time, especially when field education might be up and running again. 

Slowly but surely, the core of Field Education began to build back. Day programs to serve the needs of the local community and school district were reinvented in order to follow strict Covid protocols starting in the summer of 2020. More staff were hired (and in some cases, re-hired). In October of 2021, we dusted off our teaching kits and welcomed 5th graders from Logan, Utah to the Jackson Campus as our first residential program since March 2020.

Currently, Field Education is in a flurry of rebuilding. From hiring a full team of instructors and faculty to searching out every dark corner of our outfitting buildings to refresh gear and teaching supplies, we are joyfully looking forward to early March 2022, when our campuses will once again be bustling with students who are seeing the Tetons for the first time, reminding all of us just how special this place…and this work…truly is.

Share this post: