Alumna in Action- Founding an Outdoor Club in the Sierras

Anna, an alumna from Tuolumne County, CA returned from her spring 2017 semester with Alzar School determined to stay involved in the outdoors.  Furthermore, Anna wanted to share the many wonderful opportunities being at the gateway to Yosemite provides to more people in her community.  Anna identified that while her community had so much to offer, many had never hiked, camped, or explored the beautiful places that surround her town. 

A junior in high school, Anna is supplementing her curriculum with classes at the community college and decided that she would start an outdoor club at Columbia College.  She found a few people who were also interested in the outdoors and submitted an application to formally charter the club through the school.  Once sanctioned, Anna hosted a booth at club day to find others who were interested in exploring the outdoors.  From there, she initiated camping trips, graffiti clean-up days, and climbing trips.  She has plans for fundraising activities so the program can begin to acquire gear and club members can participate in a wilderness first aid course.

We are proud of Anna's ability to turn ideas into action and find a way to work with the structure of the organizations of which she belongs to create the outcomes she desires.  We know this skill will continue to serve Anna and her communities well.  

You can read more about Anna's project and watch a quick video here.




Decision-Making in a Snowy September

On day three of our backpacking trip, instructors woke to an icy tarp hugging their faces. The culprit: three inches of wet snow and a blown grommet. A nearby student tent lay flat, its occupants exposed to a wintery mix. The date was September 20th, and one thing was clear: summer in Idaho had come to an abrupt end.

As instructors, we faced a difficult situation. Countless days spent in backcountry situations prove over and over again that challenge is often the greatest source of growth: it’s easy for students to lead their peers under warm, blue skies, quite another to do so at 34° and pouring rain. Such situations are central to our educational philosophy: learning happens when you step outside of your comfort zone. On the other hand, as our students had learned not two days prior in their Wilderness First Aid course, hypothermia and other cold-related injuries presented a serious risk in such cold, wet conditions. Continue onward or double back and regroup in better conditions?

Summer in Idaho

My co-instructors and I debated back and forth about the merits and risks of adjusting our course itinerary. Try as we might, we knew that the crucial element of the decision was how our students felt about confronting the challenge ahead. Moreover, this was their course, not ours. So, as rain turned to sleet turned to snow turned back to rain, we voiced our concerns and turned over the reigns to our students. Afterall, they had everything they needed to make the decision: knowledge of cold injuries and the risk they posed;  an acute awareness of each other’s abilities and struggles; and an appreciation for the goals of our time in the backcountry.

Students began discussing the situation, noting each other’s comfort level, speaking to their own goals and anxieties, and weighing risk versus reward. Each student shared organically, and instructors served as little more than autonomous maps, detailing various trail options and mileages. After 10 minutes, students reached a strong consensus: the risk of continued winter conditions was too great for our novice group. We would turn back.

As the group began walking back in the direction we came, I turned to my co-instructor, Meredith, who was slated to teach a lesson on decision-making that evening. We quickly agreed that the lesson was no longer necessary: experience had taught our students far better than we ever could.

Physics: Dropping Knowledge

The day after students arrived, we began academic classes. One class, Physics, immediately took their heady concepts and formulas to the test.

During a Physics Lab last week, the students were asked to consider the forces of gravity, drag, and impact on a given object. In our Physics class last Wednesday, the object was a raw egg. 

Gravity, when left entirely to its own devices, will cause a falling object to accelerate. So, as we all know, if you simply dropped a raw egg from a ~4.35 meter ledge (as the students did), that thing should definitely break! But, students were asked to help create "drag", or air resistance... or friction (all synonyms that helped me understand this concept) on their egg so they could slow acceleration and hopefully keep the egg from cracking.

Another way to protect the egg is by  displacing or slowing down impact. If you protect the falling egg with some kind of buffer such as bubble wrap, the time of impact will increase, so the intensity of the hit will be spread out over... maybe .5 seconds instead of .25. In this way, the students could also attempt to protect their egg. 

So, our Semester 10 Physics students were given a variety of materials to increase drag and decrease impact. The one caveat was that they could only build one device. They couldn't have something attached to the egg and on the ground; they had to get creative. And, they did.

Some built elaborate pillows dangling just below their eggs to decrease impact. Others, as you'll see in the picture below, made parachutes.

Charlie, Nick, and Bryan showing off their egg-protection contraption

We're so lucky to have an academic environment where our kiddos can learn hands-on - test their ideas and learn from their  experiences. Not one egg broke! 

Saturday’s Discussion: Science + Communication

What's so exciting about learning at Alzar School is that we have the opportunity to delve into interdisciplinary studies every few weeks. They come about in the form of "Saturday Classes". This past Saturday was our 2nd of the year. In the first, the Environmental Science and Math teachers, Reed and Jonathan respectively, teamed up to teach the students about food composting and then the logistics behind making a large-scale compost site feasible... and then they did it! As an institution, we've been dreaming about making our campus' food consumption more sustainable, and we did it. Semester 9's students did to be exact.

This past Saturday, Megan and I co-taught a class combining Biology and English. To get the kids' attention, we called it "Making Science Sexy" because the truth is that "Science and Communication" sounds down-right boring. However, -I'm getting excited here- that's the whole point! We wanted to get the students thinking about how the words/data/images/videos that are used to convey scientific information can either bore you to death or engage you into action. On top of that, we wanted them to reflect on which formats are most engaging for them specifically. We introduced the science of Global Climate Change to them in seven styles:

  1. Lecture: Meg talked about what's happening in the atmosphere at a molecular level
  2. Visual Aids: graphs, diagrams, charts, infographics, etc.
  3. Photography: computer-generated and real-life
  4. Videos: ranging from An Inconvenient Truth to CNN films about the Marshall Islands
  5. Humor: comics, parody films, etc.
  6. Non-fictional Literature: news articles, personal accounts, etc.
  7. Fictional Literature: written poetry, spoken word, short stories

We showed myriad resources in each category and had the students reflect on each one, asking them how informative and engaging they found those styles of information to be.

After reviewing all of them, the students came together and discussed how scientific information can be made "sexier". They found out that for some of them articles and diagrams were the most engaging. Others were hit hard by the spoken word poetry and photographs of real people. They talked about using a variety of formats to appeal to multiple audiences. The students saw that what most appealed to them was often very different than what the kid next to them wanted to see, hear, or read.

After our Harkness Discussion the students were asked to delve into a social and environmental issue occurring in their sending communities. They had to produce a presentation for that information that called to their style of learning. Some kids created raps, others drew comics. Many wrote articles drawing on diagrams and photographs. One prepared a power point, and a few others made a video. More than a couple wrote poems. They came up with some awesome final products.

I'd like to share a poem by one of our students who wanted to address the intersection of homelessness and disease:

"Responsibility" by Samantha Daddi

Closed eyes, run by, look away no one makes a sound
Sitting there, a man dressed as though he hasn't a change of clothes,
Seemingly twinning with the man on his right,
The women on the bus snicker and scorn, advising distance to keep from those two, oh and all of the people over there, warning us not to go over there.

Ignored by society, pushed away to the side
Dropped to the ground from such a large high,
Drugs help to stabilize some of these guys,
Came here after loosing the game we call life.
Illness is not always apparent to the eye.
needs a clean slate, restrictions, guidelines and contributions
Outside perspectives no not responsible for their actions, they aren't mine

Mentally ill falling down a hill isn't that their problem?
Closed minded fragile views on social stigmas
Drugs may help this poor man's struggles but without regulation they may just be trouble,
Ways of communicating health and wellbeing to people who aren't being helped or well treated
One thing leads to another and that poor man is now in more turbulent trouble
Self care isn't there, access and efforts leading to outward diseases
Respiratory infection, skin disease and even hiv
Problems snowballing into a very large set,
Without taking responsibility,
standing up to systems that aren't met
we must never forget it is your responsibility to help one another, hard times good times, no one will know if we all contribute to a societal uphill

Semester 9 Staff – the Best Yet

When we arrived back at Cascade, Idaho on August 4th, we were only a little different than when we'd left two months prior; some of us had traveled to Canada for epic whitewater, others had returned to old communities to rediscover big pieces of ourselves. Most spent too many hours in cars listening to innumerable podcasts, and a few backpacked. All of us were tanner. But, the four teachers and their new experiences that returned that day only make up a fraction of the instructors that would have a new and profound effect on Semester 9's kids tomorrow (and many days to follow).

This semester we have Megan Wyllie - she was our Science Teaching Fellow last Fall and has come back for the incredible community she proved so capable of developing then. She's bubbly and passionate and fierce. She's capable and humble and caring. She's our Leadership teacher (among many other things).

We have Reed Wommack who has spent weeks and weeks backpacking and instructing in Alaska. He's taught at Swiss Semester. He's kayaked loads. And, he is incredibly good at any game you try to play with him. He's supportive and playful and pensive. He teaches a little Science, a little English, and a little Phys.Ed. He's a boss.

We got Colin back from last semester, too! Colin just came back from leading a trip in Alaska, as well. He loves being on the water and could probably teach anyone how to roll a kayak. He's great at accents and gets work done. He studied abroad in Spain, and now he teaches Spanish and P.E. Can't stop, won't stop.

And those are only our teachers! Our Teaching Fellows are so incredibly and impressively capable. Melissa traveled abroad to Ecuador, has an Education degree, and leads multi-week expeditions for Deer Hill Academy. We have John who has been to Chile multiple times, was the president of his college's outing club, and taught at Teton Science School. Johanna mountaineers, climbs, and has a degree in Education, as well. She's warm and loves to take photos. Hallie has been a raft guide for some years now, she lived abroad in Spain, and she is rocking it as our Medical Coordinator assistant. And, Dave has been a wilderness instructor for years. He's passionate about teaching leadership and orientation. He's hilarious and kind.

... and those are only are instructors! We have a new Dean of Studies and a new Director of Admissions. Our program is growing, and it's no doubt one might fear what that growth means for them or their student. Being someone who is very directly affected by these changes, I certainly wondered. And my fears have been assuaged. After five days of river-systems training, risk-management scenarios, academic lessons, early mornings, and late nights, I feel more than confident in saying that we have a stellar crew. These people know and care. They are capable and compassionate. They are role models and open to growth.

Semester 9 is bound to be the best yet -I'm sure of it-, and it's only the first day.