Fourteen fourth-graders spend time in the wilderness |

Fourteen fourth-graders spend time in the wilderness

Reid Williams

ILVERTHORNE – The students knew they were in for a lifetime experience when a herd of bison escorted them across the bridge into Yellowstone National Park.

Silverthorne Elementary media teacher Scott Sperry led 14 fourth-graders and four adults into the wilds of geysers and wolves as part of a field trip to build on students’ classroom learning. The group spent April 22 to April 26 in the Lamar Valley of the nation’s first national park, and students gathered at the school May 14 to share pictures and reminisce about the lessons park rangers passed on to them.

“The purpose of the trip is to learn more about habitat,” said Sperry, who has organized trips the past four years. “They see how animals survive, learn about preservation. The activities also encourage teamwork.”

The trip was a whirlwind of activity: Students were awake at 6 a.m., working together to cook meals and clean up after themselves. Then it was into the outdoors for hikes, tracking animals or exploring geology. The evenings were occupied by classes to prepare for what students would see the next day, and no one was free to hit the hay until close to 10 p.m.

“I’ve never woken up that early,” said student Victoria Strassler. “And I’ve never had to take five-minute showers before. We were so busy.”

Teachers at Silverthorne prepare students before the trip using a curriculum purchased from the National Park Service. The materials and activities in the lessons introduce students to concepts related to ecosystems, the inter-relatedness of wildlife and habitat and natural features of Yellowstone, such as geothermal activity and wildfires.

At the park, rangers reinforce that learning with hands-on activities. The group also is privileged to visit areas of the park that are normally closed to the public. The students are required to keep journals in which they write notes from classes and reflect on what they learn. One lesson, for example, challenged students to decipher whether a skull belonged to a predator or prey by examining its teeth. In another lesson, students learned about the reintroduction of wolves to the park (in 1995) and wrote journal entries on what it must have been like to be a wolf stuck in a pen.

“We learned a lot about the animals and their habitat – how they have to survive,” said student Kelly McDonald. “I’ve seen moose, elk, deer and fox, but we don’t have wolves and bison in my backyard.”

The experience is just as meaningful for adults, the chaperones said. Fellow teachers Kirsten Shult, Becky Barnes, retired principal Don Waldera and Summit High School senior Chris Shult accompanied the students. It was Chris Shult’s second Yellowstone trip with the school.

“I learned a lot that I didn’t get on the first trip,” he said. “And the kids are great to watch, and they’re so well-behaved. I think we all benefit from the leadership skills and working in groups.”

Sperry said he feels very fortunate to have taken so many students to such a special place over the past years. To make the trip, schools must submit an application. The park holds programs for only four months of the year, allowing about 16 school groups into the area. Sperry also said the trip would not have been possible without the support of parents, and businesses and community agencies that donated money. For him, he said, he’s reminded of the value of the trip at the group’s final campfire where they share what they have learned.

“These fourth-graders do some deep thinking,” Sperry said. “It’s an emotional thing – I’m a wreck by that point. And it’s a magic you just can’t recreate.”

Sperry said he will continue to apply for the trips in coming years, and students were glad to hear it.

“I would recommend all the fourth-graders go next year,” Strassler said. “If you like nature, you should definitely go on this trip.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or

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