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?
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.
At Alzar, we venture into remote settings. We ski and paddle and hike and as faculty and staff we often ask the question "What If?". What if my friend trips over a rock on a hike and breaks their ankle? What if we get caught in a lightning storm while on a hike? What if someone goes into cardiac arrest? Wilderness medicine training is one step in learning to think about and be prepared to deal with the unexpected.
After returning to campus from our time in Chile , students spent 5 days before classes resumed participating in and ultimately becoming certified as Wilderness Advanced First Responders (WAFA). During WAFA students attended lectures on stings, bites, allergies, trauma injuries, and many other medical topics. Along with class lectures, everyone spent at least half of the days in simulations learning how to assess patients in a wilderness setting and then treat and evacuate them.
In simulations some students were patients and were given symptoms, a history, and possibly even fake bruises or lacerations for the the other students, the "responders" to treat. On our final day of the course, we were given a final scenario. Here's what we were told:
A group was rafting down a river and flipped going over a waterfall. There are five patients, each with different problems. After being given this information ,students were challenged to go and assess, treat, and evacuate the patients. Some of the injuries, a broken ankle, for example, needed to be splinted. Others- non-breathing- needed CPR and also assessment for other injuries. One of the patients was hypothermic and ultimately needed to be put into a hypo-wrap and transported back to "base" (the barn on campus) with the help of the whole team.
It was a challenging, exhilarating, and rewarding experience for all of the participants here. On day 5, after completing the written exam and the river rafting scenario, everyone was awarded with official WAFA certification cards!
Throughout the semester our students improve on a wide range of skills - language skills, technical proficiency, even culinary skills in the kitchen! In Choshuenco, one of our sister towns in Chile, the students were in charge of making their own meals in their cabañas. We jumped at the opportunity to blend grammar acquisition with nutrition and cooking. We learned the command form, an "imperative mood" in Spanish by creating recipes and comparing our favorite meals.
In this cooking video Nathan made for our Spanish 3 class, he will command us through his own personal recipe, introducing a wide range of vocabulary, and reminding us to never take oneself too seriously in the kitchen.
This wonderful week our students have been taking a break from their normal lives here at Alzar School, and to get a little practice in the field of Wilderness Medicine. This week they are roaming around campus, covered in artificial blood and injuries (called “moulage”) and taking care of each other’s make-believe injuries as they take part in a Wilderness Advanced First Aid course, or WAFA. As the students learn new vocabulary like “intracranial pressure” and new skills like the “focused spine assessment” they are slowly adding to their repertoire of leadership abilities. The students are becoming better and better at many of the 10 Elements of Leadership as they learn and practice more elements in action (for a full list of the 10 Elements of Leadership check out this page: http://alzarschool.org/about/faq/).
Of course our students are becoming more technically proficient through this course through the vast number of new skills they are acquiring, but I would like to spend a moment to think about the other ways in which this course is helping them to develop as leaders. One way, is that this course helps them to develop and practice in the realms of “360˚ Thinking” and “Accurate Awareness” (two of the 10 Elements of Leadership). In each scenario, which generally follow some preparatory lecture, the students receive minimal help from the WAFA Instructor, and instead are asked to rely on what they have learned - and what they can glean by thinking about the whole picture (360 Thinking) - to provide the best possible care. They do not know if their “patient” in the scenario is diabetic, or has a broken back, or is even conscious before arriving to the scene; they must use their investigative skills to build a finely-tuned “Accurate Awareness” of the patient’s chief complaints. Only then can they figure out not only how to treat the patient, but if it is necessary (and how it would be possible), to “evacuate” the “patient” out of the field. They need to look around, at their situation, their location, the entirety of their patient, and need to do so in a timely manner. As the students go through this course, they are visibly becoming better and better at looking for more clues (and better clues) to offer up the best solution. The development in each student, day by day in “360˚ Thinking” and “Accurate Awareness” is impressive to watch as our students become better and better life-savers and leaders.
Two other elements of leadership in these scenarios that our students also get to practice are “Communication Skills” and “Resiliency and Resourcefulness.” If they are on the rescue team they are asked to communicate not only amongst each other but with their patient. They need to be able to work together with their partners, and to do so efficiently, and may need to communicate in more ways than one. Often they would coordinate their patient care with few words, each student was able to recognize where in the process their co-rescuer was, and what was coming next. Other times they would exchange ideas on how to best treat their patient, and how to respond if their situation changes. Throughout WAFA they must be “Resilient and Resourceful” as they need to be able to adapt to changes as the patient expresses new issues that may not line up with their initial plan, and need to use only the limited resources they have to make the best fix. This has included cutting up t-shirts to use as bandages, using any sort of long and stiff implement to make a splint and sometimes even having the patient as a medical tool by having them use their hands to apply pressure or use one extremity to splint the other one.
WAFA is a course designed to teach students how to respond to medical emergencies in the wilderness by increasing technical skills and knowledge. Perhaps more importantly, however, our students build transferable leadership skills through learning to team-problem solve in high-stress environments. I feel that each student will walk away from WAFA with newfound leadership and medical confidence that will manifest itself in many ways, and that each student is capable of handling many wilderness emergencies that life may throw their way.
Over the weekend of April 19th, I had the pleasure of teaching a fully-certified swiftwater rescue course to the Alzar students through the Swiftwater Safety Institute. Having worked so closely with these students throughout the semester, I had much more perspective of their abilities than I do for most weekend courses. For the students, taking the class from their math teacher meant they didn't get a day off from academic thought and numerical precision. On the first day, I took it easy on math, just having the students compare breaking strengths of different materials and diameters of rope. They also had to know and use the conversion rate for kilonewtons to pounds if they wanted to know how their carabiners were rated.
On day two, we practice knots and anchors, which meant a more analytical look at breaking strength. Depending on the knot, a knot tied in a rope can reduce the rope strength by 25-50%. But doubling up a rope or using an anchor with multiple strands distributes the load and makes the system stronger. Furthermore, particular ratios of rope diameters need to be considered for certain multi-rope applications. Analyzing these systems got the students really thinking to identify the weak point. If you have a 5mm spectra cord tied in a prussic hitch around a 3/8" polypropylene rope, with has a figure-8 knot attached to a two-bight anchor (made with a 1" nylon webbing sling tied with a water knot) with a 31-kN aluminum carabiner, how strong is the connection? Where is the weak point?
The fun really took off when we studied the principles of mechanical advantage and pulley systems, angles, and mechanical advantage. A pulley attached to a fixed point merely changes the direction of the rope and reduces friction. But in doing so, it exerts double the force on the anchor.
If we anchor the pulley in a moving part of the system, or to what we're trying to move, we can get mechanical advantage to move heavy things (see 3:05).
We also took a quick look at how angles in a system can affect the resultant loads and multiply force, and proved that if two anchor points are far enough apart to generate a 120-degree angle, the anchors are no longer distributing the force, but each supporting a full load:
Finally, we applied these principles to another type of mechanical advantage called a vector pull. The idea is to get a taughtrope to a pinned boat and pull on it in a perpendicular direction.
Textbook will say this gives "significant mechanical advantage," but that doesn't cut it in our quest for precision. We assigned the angle of displacement between the original rope position (dotted line) and the new rope position (solid line) to be given by θ, the input force on the vector line to be represented by Fο, and the resultant force represented by F. The forces and angles are related by the following equation.
"Grace, you're taking a trig test today. Come sketch the cosecant graph from 0° to 90° for us."
"Ok, team, what's the story on that dotted line?"
Darby from Algebra 2 pipes up: "It's a vertical asymptote!"
"Which means what about the force as our angle decreases?"
Calculus students were already using their understanding of limits to describe the behavior of the force-angle relationship and say:
"So class, tying this all back to what we're talking about this weekend, which is river rescue, what needs to happen for our vector pull to achieve mechanical advantage?"
Everyone got the point. The vector pull works better and better the smaller the angle is. Our rope must be as tight as possible before we pull perpendicular. The students will probably apply this understanding on a very regular basis. Hopefully it's mostly to rig up great clotheslines after a day on the water.
-Dan Thurber, Alzar School Math Teacher