Local teachers explore the wild, controversial side of Yellowstone with ISU

August 26, 2008

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - For two weeks this summer local teachers got a closer view of the wild side of democracy in action through Indiana State University and Yellowstone National Park.

John Conant, ISU economics department chair, and Charles Amlaner, ISU biology professor, developed the class after attending a meeting with the American Democracy Project and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in which the groups called for universities to involve others in democracy.

"We invited a bunch of schoolteachers to come into this program in order to learn a little bit about the issues in Yellowstone," Amlaner said. "Our hope was, basically, to influence not only the teachers in the various important aspects of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, but at the same time, those teachers would go back into their classrooms and then influence a number of young people, both in the middle schools and high schools of Vigo County and surrounding areas."

Conant and Amlaner decided that Yellowstone National Park would provide the ideal real-world classroom in which to watch and hear about democracy in action as various factions use everything from the court system to public relations in arguing about everything from roaming bison to wolf reintroduction to snowmobiles usage.

"The goal is to help our students to better understand democracy and really the participatory nature of democracy," Conant said. "We thought there is probably no better arena with which to talk about how conflicts over public land particularly are resolved than with Yellowstone where there are a number of issues over things like the reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone ecosystem; the increasing size of the bison herd and the grazing off the park in the winter on land that is used for cattle in other seasons; about controversies over snowmobile usage in the winter and what the damage might be to natural resources in the park and the wildlife as well."

Teachers agreed.

"As a teacher, this is not something we would be exposed to in the typical classroom," said Cheryl Irwin, geography and economics teacher at West Vigo High School. "It takes an outdoor classroom like this, and getting to meet different people, to actually be able to really understand the different viewpoints here in Yellowstone Park."

"I've seen pictures of it, I've heard about it, but actually being here and sitting in this atmosphere and learning about this first hand and having my own experience and being able to transport that into what I've experienced before and then change my whole perspective about the stakeholders and talking to them is really a great way to learn," said Annie Good, a U.S. history teacher at Otter Creek Middle School.

Chris McGrew, a Purdue University social studies doctoral student who took the class at ISU and is a former teacher, said authentic learning is always the best and the class modeled that for the teachers.

"Having the teachers come here, get sunburns, have to check themselves for ticks, walking through the fields, being a little bit nervous if a bison or a group of elk or a wolf's going to come around the corner, watching from a distance, shivering in the early morning breeze - those are all things the teachers are going to remember and that's going to help them remember this experience in a lot greater detail and be much better at inviting their students along," he said.

The teachers already were thinking of ways to issue the invitation to their students.

"I've been trying to think of where I would make a solid unit to put into my lesson plans for the year, but as I think through, I'm going to have to do many lessons throughout the year because what I've learned about this national park goes throughout our whole history book," Good said.

"I look at this as maybe the quintessential process of decision making in my government classes, to present these issues to the kids, to allow them to do a little research into what these organizations feel is the right thing to do, and then let those kids see that ultimately, the political process is going to have to make some decisions that are going to impact every one of these stakeholders in the park itself," said Tim Skinner, an economics and government teacher at West Vigo High School and an Indiana state senator. "I want to let them know that it's not easy and to let them know how important it is for our politicians to listen to these interest groups and listen to what the park has to say and look at the history of the park in order to make an informed, solid decision."

Miriam Vermillion, a teacher at Otter Creek, said since wildlife is involved in the controversies it is easier to pull students into the lessons.

"I think some of these issues you could bring to the classroom and then later teach them to parallel that to issues they could pick in their own community," she said. "Use this as a model and show them that they really can become involved, that everyone does have a voice. We've seen here how each group that's affected by some of these controversial issues has had their voices heard, whether they get permits and come in the park to try to have people listen to their stance or their opinions on a topic or they've written legislation."

Yellowstone provides a classroom in itself, whether studying different economic concepts addressed in Indiana's academic standards or biology, according to Conant.

"Yellowstone National Park provides not only a really interesting, fun environment, but a real-world place that you can study the economic concepts as they are working themselves out, particularly through a public discourse and decision making over how these public assets should be used," he said.

It's a place to where Amlaner and Conant hope to take another class in years to come.

"We hope to bring more students out here next year and the years following to learn more about how the problems have either resolved in this area or have gotten worse or indeed have changed in their landscape," Amlaner said. "We hope to be able to get a snapshot today, and to then be able to, in a year or two or three, to get another snapshot, and to be able to compare where we are today with tomorrow."

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Contact: John Conant, Indiana State University, economics chair, at 812-237-2160 or jconant@isugw.indstate.edu  

Charles Amlaner, Indiana State University, biology department professor, at 812-237-2405 or camlaner@indstate.edu  

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or jennifer.sicking@indstate.edu  

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/333631664_UqR6E-D.jpg 

Cutline: Annie Good, a teacher at Otter Creek Middle School, stops for a photograph while on a hike in Yellowstone National Park. ISU Photo/ Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/333633356_Zq8Lg-D.jpg 

Cutline: Tim Skinner, an economics and government teacher at West Vigo High School and an Indiana state senator, examines a bone while on a hike at Yellowstone National Park. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/333635234_J7gTx-D.jpg 

Cutline: Miriam Vermillion and Annie Good, teachers at Otter Creek Middle School, along with Tim Skinner, teacher at West Vigo High School and Indiana state senator, and ISU economics professor John Conant listen at the Buffalo Field Campaign headquarters. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/333612141_j5tNK-D.jpg 

Cutline: Cheryl Irwin, a teacher at West Vigo High School, measures the temperature of a hot spring at Yellowstone National Park.