Connecting Knowledge through Experiential Education at Greenhill: The History and Science of Our First National Park

By Chris Bigenho, Director of Instructional Technology

Take a stroll through any major university and you can find great halls and facilities dedicated to the teaching of specific disciplines. K-12 schools start to look that way as you move through the upper grades. You can find classrooms where the beauty of mathematics is shared with students. English and History is learned in their respective pods while Science and Art have their own buildings. In many cases, this is necessary because of the nature of the materials used within the teaching of these disciplines. However, one effect that stems from this physical segmenting of the distribution and manipulation of knowledge is the creation of knowledge silos where discipline specific problems are addressed.

These knowledge silos bear little resemblance to how we naturally learn and how the world works. Most of the world’s problems do not have answers that reside in any one discipline. Answers to, and understanding of, real world problems reside at the confluence of multiple disciplines, are highly contextualized, and often quite messy.

Those who know me know that I do not like the idea of knowledge silos. Useful knowledge, knowledge that can be retained for life, must be connected in context with knowledge from interacting disciplines. While knowledge silos are common at all schools, there are ways that schools can to break down silo walls and connect what appears as disparate information. These connections may be built through problem based learning activities, and experiential education.

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One of the things I have really enjoyed about my 18 years at Greenhill is the openness to new ways of teaching and learning. Greenhill’s flexibility of curriculum and method allows for new approaches including problem-based learning and experiential education. While some experiential learning occurs on short day trips in the Dallas area, the School has also expanded opportunities for students through extended travel. Examples include past trips to China, Korea, Australia and New Zealand and the upcoming New York Broadway experience.

Learning through travel is transformational in ways unmatched in classroom experiences. As a child of a park ranger and two school teachers who never missed a sabbatical, I have been the lucky recipient of some amazing experiential learning including six months of travel that included three months in Europe and one month in Britain. Yes, this involved being pulled out of school for half a year, but I was so much richer from the experience. Additionally, most know me as the Director of Educational Technology at Greenhill but few know of my 20 summers of growing up in Yellowstone National Park. This period of time was marked with a complete lack of technology and for a considerable time, no gas, electricity or running water as I spent extended periods of time living in backcountry patrol cabins within the park.

As a young child, while my peers in California might play ball in their front yard and ride their bikes, my parents instilled in me the need to come inside if bears, moose and other large wild animals were visible from my “yard”. This park living can bring some unexpected visitors to your game of kickball. I found that I became more aware of my surroundings and my place in that space. The learning was organic and did not follow any real prescribed path of any one discipline. There was always a sense of place: past, present and change for the future. History informed science and vice versa. As an example, experiencing the changes in the parks fire management practices over 20 years reflected new thoughts about how mature forests function, the role of fire in the ecosystem, fire science, past practices and integrated cultural practices of those who lived in the area long before Europeans landed on the North American Continent. These policy changes also indicated the need to consider changing climates as well as insect infestations and human impact on the area. Learning is messy and to be allowed to make these types of connections through experience is what makes them so rich. The ability to see how different disciplines can inform each other when contextualized in a real-world problem is a powerful and transformational force.

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In the spirit of this type contextualized experiential learning I am pleased to announce a new opportunity starting this summer for students in the Upper School. Immediately prior to holiday break, a unique new class was approved for Upper School students starting this summer—The History and Science of our First National Park.

This class offers a two week cross-disciplinary experience in History and Science. Students taking this class will earn two history or two science elective credits based on their preferences and the artifacts of understanding they produce at the conclusion of the class. However, they will have the opportunity to participate in all aspects of the class as they experience the wonders of Yellowstone National Park and the way history, science, culture, and politics have shaped the park, and how these all combine with self to define personal experiences and ones place in nature.

Stacey Wink, Middle School Science Teacher, and I will lead the class. We will start June 8 with three preparatory days on campus. Then we will depart for 14 days in the Yellowstone National park and surrounding areas. Students will camp nearly every night in park campgrounds and explore different regions each day. The class will also spend three to four days traveling in the Yellowstone backcountry and staying in backcountry campsites. Lessons are just-in-time as students get to experience the park as they are learning about past and current American Indian Cultures, early explorers, geology, fire ecology, changing wildlife conservation practices, water quality issues, geothermal structures and processes, and more. The learning is all contextualized through our common experience and explored through lenses of local, regional, state and federal politics and policy and blended with the rich history of the American West.

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Beyond the academics, students have a chance to develop many new skills including wilderness camping, outdoor camp cooking, and survival skills. Nothing connects you more to nature than your gathering food, and making a fire with which to cook with and keep warm—a vision of our past, it is a present reality for millions of people in many cultures across the globe. Some of the greatest life lessons often come from these types of experiences and can’t be scripted or taught. They are organic, stem from within the individual as he or she works through how different knowledge types connect and what it all means. In short, the greatest lessons learned by students are often lessons about themselves.

So as the summer rapidly approaches, students will soon hear more about this new opportunity. It is my hope that this will be the beginning of additional experiences which are made possible by Greenhill’s openness to allowing teachers and students to think flexibly around curriculum and what it means to teach and learn in a dynamic and connected world.

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