RMS merges academic and wilderness pursuits
Ryan Summerlin April 28, 2006
LEADVILLE – There are some things you just can’t learn in a classroom.At the High Mountain Institute (HMI) in Leadville, single-semester students spend almost as much time in the wilderness as they do in front of a dry-erase board.HMI established its Rocky Mountain Semester (RMS) in 1998 as a unique learning opportunity for high school juniors. According to RMS’ co-founder and head of school, Molly Barnes, the semester program provides a junction point between intellectual and wilderness pursuits. Each of RMS’ 36 students embark on three roughly 10- to 12-day wilderness expeditions over the course of their four-and-a-half-month stay.Most RMS expeditions are to the canyons of southeastern Utah and they have occasionally traveled to Wyoming’s Wind River Range. There are also several local expeditions – a fall service trip to nearby Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert as well as a winter camping trip during the spring semester.On campus, students reside in rustic cabins that are heated by wood-burning stoves.Personal growth through outdoor education
“One of the biggest things we try to do on expeditions is help students become self sufficient,” said RMS staff member Johanna Healy, who has been on the program’s last 18 expeditions. “They’re at that age where they can start to take on a lot more responsibility and we are giving them trust in that responsibility.”Staff members model the process of cooking food a few times, for example, before they expect students to develop the skill for themselves.”The bar gets raised every expedition,” Healy said.”They really set you up to do what you need to do,” said Summit High School’s Keller Morrison, who attended RMS last fall. “Especially if you ever want to go out in the wilderness on your own.”RMS students are evaluated on their ability to learn and demonstrate a variety of backcountry skills while in the field. Map and compass work and “leave no trace” ethics are among the top priorities, according to Barnes.”On the more intangible side is living and working together in a small group,” Barnes said. “Our students develop leadership, communication and conflict resolution skills. They can take those anywhere.”Leadership and communication skills are both taught in RMS’ ethics class. “What makes our wilderness trips different is that they have an academic or intellectual side to them,” Barnes said. “English, history, science and ethics are all taught out in the field.”Students must not only attend class in the great outdoors, they also have to contend with a daily dose of homework.
“It’s kind of a bummer,” RMS student Garret O’Brien said in regards to his wilderness workload. “But you get a lot of time to finish it and I’d rather be doing it in front of a sweet view as opposed to back at school.”RMS teachers work to align their academic lesson plans with skills and experiences that students are likely to encounter while hiking and camping.”The homework is pretty fun,” RMS student Terrence Word said. “Our first science assignment was about how the canyons were formed and we were right there to actually see how it happened.”Winter campingOf all the RMS expeditions, the winter trip leaves students the least amount of leisure time.”The second expedition was very challenging,” RMS student and Leadville resident EmilyChant said. “Even though I live here, I never thought I would go winter camping. Living in the snow and staying warm and dry is hard.”Chant learned, among other things, how to get around on telemark skis and how to build a quigloo.Quigloo construction involves mounding snow, packing it down and then tunneling into it from above and below to create a chamber for living. The entrance to a quigloo is capped by a giant block of snow, similar to the type used in traditional igloo construction.
RMS quigloos are generally built to sleep four of five people with standing room for all.Small community livingBarnes maintains that despite their often demanding nature, RMS expeditions are about more than just basic survival.”Anyone can go into the wilderness and survive,” she said. “We want to teach students how to camp in the wilderness in style.”As HMI students come to learn, camping and living in style often requires them to overcome group challenges and resolve interpersonal conflicts. “One of the side benefits of RMS is that students live together in close quarters for four and a half months,” she said. “If there’s someone you don’t get along with, you have to work it out; you can’t hide from them whether it’s on campus or in the wilderness.”Adam Boffey can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13631 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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