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Project WET Goes To The Grand Tetons

The competition for clean paper and floor space is something you expect to see in a classroom. Of course, like home, classrooms can be where the heart is. And the air was thick with heart in January at the Teton Science School (TSS) in Kelly Wyoming. Twenty primary and secondary school teachers attended a 3 day workshop to learn how to incorporate Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) teaching modules into their water education efforts. Project WET is a non-profit water education program designed to facilitate and promote awareness and appreciation of water resources. The Bureau of Reclamation has supported the mission of Project WET through a multi-year grant jointly funded by two separate Reclamation offices.

"Teton Science School applied for a grant with the Bureau in 1997," says Janice Richardson, Resource Management Specialist with the Provo Utah Office. "The initial grant was for $12,000, and funded by the Provo and Wyoming Area Offices. We've extended that grant, but their funding runs out in June. They'll plan to apply for more funding from the Wyoming Area Office this year."

Since 1967, the TSS has held the belief that experience is the best teacher. The school is where it is because it believes the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem serves as an excellent outdoor classroom for year round programs to students of all ages. And, the importance of the locale isn't lost on Reclamation. "Since TSS works with graduate students on environmental issues," says Joe Whittaker, of the Provo Office, "by funding it, we help the school expose them to Project WET, reinforcing it." "They, in turn," he says, "teach visiting children Project WET. So we get a double bang for our buck."

And, "BANG" is what it felt like. From the first minutes of teacher arrivals, it was clear that nobody was seeing that Friday night as the start of a weekend; they knew they were there to work. But watching them, you could liken it to a Monday, ... with balloons. Soon after the chores of registration, housing and dinner were finished, the professionals settled into the first of three late nights taking notes and exchanging ideas. Sue Perin, TSS Faculty Member and Wyoming Project WET coordinator was upbeat. "I always see lots of excitement from teachers at these workshops because they're learning activities they can immediately use in their classrooms and get active participation." Sue says she loves doing the workshops, "because they're so much fun. The teachers end up enjoying themselves and are inspired by the curriculum."

Over the three days, teachers made rainsticks, snowshoed into a nearby streambed to do snow density measurements and created Project WET presentations for their peers. One especially effective activity pointed out the limitations of water treatment. Half a dozen teachers, each holding a crayon, lined up single file and at arms length. The crayon represented sewage that each user was depositing into a sewage treatment plant. They had one minute to move their line through the "plant." Another teacher posing as the plant, required each user wait for 5 seconds of "processing time" before accepting their sewage. This worked fine as long as the system wasn't overburdened by population. But, when the other thirteen "users" also tried to move through the line in a minute, the system broke down and the remaining "sewage" smoothly flowed into nearby aquifers, rivers, and wells.

The walls of the TSS Main Lodge were dotted with maps, preserved animals and biographies. Most interesting, the biographies are stories of people who were somehow influenced by the work of the school, and who helped establish scholarships to promote it's work. There are even letters from former President George Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush thanking the school for its environmental efforts.

That type of dedication and responsibility to excellence is felt by the visiting teachers. "You never know what you're dealing with," says Geoff Baumann, an 8th Grade Teacher at Powell Middle School in Powell Wyoming. "The kids are enthusiastic when they're here, but they go home, and you're always afraid the parents will say, "what did you learn in school today?", and the kids say, "nothing." Baumann says that for him, programs like this encourage the teaching and learning of both the environment and of Reclamation's role in it. "I quite often have parents come up to me and say, 'Oh my daughter is so interested. She knows now how irrigation works. They're interested in laterals, canals, diversion dams and we have to go see these places,' which they do."

But sometimes, it's not just the kids who learn something new. "Seeing two professionals from the Bureau of Reclamation at a 3-day workshop all about water and teaching students how to conserve it, did a real number on my perception of the Bureau's mission and intent," says Jen Cerovski, a Middle School Teacher in Roosevelt Wyoming. "After taking water history classes my impression of your organization was basically that it was a money-hungry machine focused on using its power to create projects that were not economically or environmentally feasible. The goal did not appear to be focused on helping the community, but to build prestige and power."

But Jen Cerovski's opinion has changed since the workshop. "Obviously, I was mistaken in my judgements. Getting to know the Reclamation people as individuals, and listening to you define the Bureau and then go on the teach hands-on classes about water and using it safely and wisely was fabulous. I now see the Bureau as a resource to my classroom and my personal knowledge base. You all have reached out and provided funds and even more importantly, personnel to help me become a better educator, which in turn, affects my students and the quality of education they receive."

Several teachers admitted that you never really know what influence you're having on kids. No one could point to statistics that what kids learned changed their family behavior toward water. But, as Jen Cerovski points out, "You have all helped me become a better educator, which in turn, affects my students and the quality of the education they receive. And we all know these little 4th and 5th grade whippersnappers will one day be the leaders of this world." But more than that, if school officials are finding money to make sure teachers get this training, they must have a belief, statistical or not, that it has, or will payoff. Geoff Baumann concurs. "If for some reason, principals and superintendents send teachers to workshops like this just so that we can continue to upgrade our skills and knowledge and abilities to tell kids and teach them about this, we'll go home and teach it more."


Last updated: January 22, 2007