Keystone Science School Elevates Education

HIGH SCHOOL: Keystone teachers watch the sunrise July 28 from Loveland Pass, an 11,990-foot-high mountain pass located on North America's Continental Divide. (Photo: Russell McLendon/MNN).

Science isn't just for scientists any more than math is just for mathematicians — and thanks to a growing "citizen science" movement in the U.S., ordinary folks are increasingly helping with all kinds of scientific tasks, like counting bird populations, decoding whale songs, recording roadkill data and housing homeless hermit crabs.

This boom in crowd-sourced science is relatively new, aided by the Internet and smartphones, but the basic idea of training amateur experts isn't. The Keystone Science School in Colorado, for example, has spent the past 36 years building "a healthy respect for scientific inquiry" among the general public, teaching kids and adults alike with "engaging, hands-on field experiences."

To see how KSS does this, I spent the past week attending one of its programs, a crash course in environmental education called "Key Issues: Bringing Environmental Issues to the Classroom." Joined by dozens of schoolteachers from around the U.S. and Canada, I raced through a gauntlet of lesson plans that cast me as an ecological sleuth and problem solver, juggling an array of challenges like transit planning, topographic mapping, water-quality testing and pollution remediation. These experiences eventually will be passed on to thousands of American schoolchildren, part of the KSS mission to inspire more scientific analysis and civic engagement.

"We know that today's youth are our future leaders," KSS explains in a mission statement on its website. "With that in mind, we've created interactive science education programs that help students become familiar with scientific and critical thinking skills and encourage them to be engaged citizens."

Key Issues is brimming with hands-on investigations into elaborate environmental scenarios, sort of like a live-action mix of SimCity, Scooby-Doo and the board game Clue. I might spoil the surprises for future attendees (and their students) if I give away too much, so I'll restrain myself from describing some of the best parts. But it's at least safe to point out what's fun about Key Issues in general: solving complex, realistic mysteries in an interdisciplinary way that's accessible to almost anyone.

Working in groups, the teachers and I tackled problems from all academic angles — in addition to science, Key Issues has creative lessons in math, social studies and language arts. In fact, the teachers hail from those four subjects and more, reflecting the emphasis on academic diversity at KSS. About half of last week's attendees teach science, but the group also included teachers of math (17 percent), language arts (12 percent), all subjects (8 percent), gifted classes (6 percent) and social studies (4 percent). Several are extracurricular coaches, too, leading competitive teams in everything from baseball and track to geography and robotics.

Everyone in our KSS class received a bulging binder and CD full of lesson plans, and most of the teachers also took home giant boxes of lab equipment to accompany the coursework. The modules can be taught individually or as part of a cohesive storyline, and can also be modified to address environmental issues in different areas. Much of the KSS curriculum deals with Colorado themes like tourism, mining and mountain hydrology — including several field trips — but teachers can tailor it to local issues that resonate better with their students.

Without revealing its narrative twists and dramatic flair, here are some of the ways Key Issues taught us how to teach ourselves (and how to teach others to teach themselves) about science, civics and problem-solving in general:

Technology: One of the week's first outdoor activities was "geocaching," a kind of 21st-century scavenger hunt that uses GPS to track down hidden capsules filled with knickknacks. The hobby has spread wildly over the past decade, with geocachers now hiding items all over the planet for others to find. At KSS, teachers learned the basics of coordinate-reading and satellite navigation with handheld devices, requiring far more patience and nuance than simply obeying the GPS in your car. Above, three teachers track their target at the KSS campus.

Wilderness: While most of the program was indoors, there were also several field trips that immersed teachers in distinctive Rocky Mountain ecosystems — like a discussion about pine beetles, drought and wildfire that took place in front of forests turning brown from beetle-killed trees. Keystone facilitators also led a series of optional early-morning hikes like the one pictured above, in which teachers encountered native wildlife such as pikas, marmots and elk.

Topography: In between excursions through the area's majestic peaks, teachers sat down for a tactile, artsy lesson that linked the scenery to more abstract scientific concepts like topography. It was one of many multipart activities designed to help students realize the real-world implications of science — while also melding science with art and encouraging a hands-on teaching style both indoors and outdoors.

Hydrology: Mountains don't exist in a vaccuum, so the KSS attendees also learned about how topography and geology can affect the flow, composition and quality of local freshwater. Teams of teachers visited three different streams, measuring their width, depth, flow rate, pH, dissolved oxygen and biodiversity, as well as levels of contaminants like heavy metals and pesticides. This year's data were also compared to results from 2011, offering a hint of how data can become increasingly useful to scientists when gathered consistently over time.

Geology: Lead, zinc and other heavy metals in the area's freshwater are often the result of current and historic mining, so the KSS teachers also toured a former gold mine that extends deep inside a mountain. Aside from getting a history lesson in the way resources were extracted in the 1800s, we got a firsthand look at how weather can interact with geology and human activity to cause environmental problems — in this case, snowmelt carrying mine byproducts into nearby streams.

Chemistry: Industrial mining was only one aspect of a comprehensive look into water-quality issues. The KSS curriculum also had teachers racing one another to diagnose contaminant sources and map out plumes of pollution, whether by looking for microbes in simulated stool samples, testing tap water for pesticides, or examining the relationships among surface topography, bedrock geology and groundwater flow.

Sustainability: The broad notion of sustainability was key to many of the lessons, from attempts to define the term and explain it poetically to an exercise that had us plan, design and build a working model of a cable-car tram. The team with the most sustainable tram won, but it wasn't as subjective as it might sound: We had budgets of fake money, bought different materials at fixed prices, mapped potential routes through wetlands and forests, conformed to safety regulations and even calculated our employee-benefit programs, all of which affected our economic, environmental and social sustainability. Above, a teacher runs his tram on the test track.

Appreciation: After a dizzying week of nearly nonstop activity, the final day of KSS began with a serene sunrise hike up Loveland Pass (pictured above), an 11,990-foot-high mountain pass located on North America's Continental Divide. Although it left many of us gasping for air — both from the breathtaking scenery and the low oxygen levels — it was a fitting capstone for the whirlwind trip. With almost any kind of scientific pursuit or analytical challenge, it helps to occasionally take a step back, look around and remember why you care.

(Full disclosure: This trip was paid for by Georgia-Pacific, a sponsor of MNN. GP has supported the Keystone Science School for more than a decade, and also helps send several science teachers there every year.)