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Considering all sides: Fostering leadership for the future

Special to the Daily/Keystone Science School
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As you read this, a group of sixth graders and I are cross-country skiing in Summit County’s forests to look for animal tracks. We’re studying wolves, and we want check for indications of a healthy habitat for wolves to live in. Specifically, we’re looking for signs of wolves’ desired food source: ungulates (aka deer and elk). If we see lots of aspen trees, and rose and kinnickinnick bushes, we’ll know we’re on the right track, since that’s what ungulates like to eat. Later, we’ll talk about wolf behavior, habitat requirements, and the history of wolf populations in the U.S.

Fear not: The goal here is not to actually find wolves. Rather, it’s one step of several we take with our students as we guide them through the process of understanding how to think through decision-making around big issues. In this case, it’s the issue of wolf management: Although wolves were eradicated from Colorado many years ago, how should they be managed if they begin to migrate here from other states where they’ve been introduced?

This is a real-life public policy issue, and that’s the point. Keystone Science School was founded one year after its parent organization, The Keystone Center, began its mission to bring together stakeholders to hash out issues around contentious environmental policy issues. Our founder, Bob Craig, firmly believed in striving for consensus before issues got to the point of litigation. He also believed that young people who were taught these principles early on would be better equipped to guide us into the future.



Thirty-five years later, we are still teaching our students to bring issues down from the 30,000-foot level and examine them from all sides. After conducting their initial research on wolves, this week’s students will take the next step in the process and assume the role of a stakeholder in the issue: a rancher or livestock grower, a public-safety advocate, an animal rights activist, a hunter. Each is given a “position statement” from which they must advocate. And then they must begin to work together to decide on the best decision for everyone.

Inevitably, they learn that compromise is tough when you feel strongly about something. When we apply this same process to questions about water management, for example, sometimes we host kids from ranching families who already have really strong opinions about water use, based on their own personal circumstances. These kids sometimes have the most eye-opening experiences, because maybe they’ve never thought about the challenges faced by Denver Water customers, or fishermen or whitewater rafters. They start thinking in terms of the greater good rather than a single position. It’s very rewarding to see, at the group’s culminating “town hall meeting,” as our 12-year-old stakeholders begin to nod in agreement as they listen to their counterparts plead their cases. It’s amazing to watch them come up with hypothetical solutions together.



In this era of divisive politics, it’s heartening to think that perhaps some of our students, having been taught to look with a critical eye at all sides of the issue and listen thoughtfully to a variety of perspectives, might help change that dynamic in the future. In the meantime, we’ll keep planting the seeds out on the trail.

Oana Ivan is a program instructor at Keystone Science School. For more information on the school, visit our website, keystonescienceschool.org or call us (970) 468-2098.


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