Learning, growth expected for Canyon Country Discovery Center

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canyon-country-discovery-centerThis will be a year of development and learning for the Canyon Country Discovery Center – the new campus of the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education in Monticello, Utah.

“There are things we just don’t know — from hours to activities and the tourist market,” said Chris Giangreco, the center’s development director. “We want to learn as much as we can in 2016. There’s so much that we don’t know and so much that we need to figure out to make this center a success.”

In an effort to build enthusiasm for science and encourage an economic boost in Monticello, Utah, the Four Corners School opened the Discovery Center, in December of last year. It sits on 48 acres a half-mile north of Monticello.

The center focuses on a hands-on, place-based and experiential approach to learning by creating interactive opportunities using technology and unique design concepts. Nothing has ever existed in Monticello similar to this.

“We have an opportunity to breathe life into our little town of Monticello and this hasn’t really even been done before,” Giangreco said. “The town is a great little place to live, but there isn’t a whole lot for people to do, or to drive the economy.”

Janet Ross, executive director of the center, agreed and looks forward to witnessing the change in Monticello culture. “The community saw the center as an economic-development opportunity and an economic driver for the town, including job creation.”

The center will ultimately hire 20 new staff members and create permanent jobs in Monticello.

Giangreco said that of the more than 2 million people driving through Monticello on their way to different scenic locations on public lands, not many people stay in the town itself.

“This is a great opportunity for people to stop and spend some money while learning about the places they’ll be seeing,” he said. “There’s a great economic-development aspect to this.”

Rebecca Bailey, the center’s education coordinator, who previously served as a park ranger for 10 years, views this as an opportunity to bring people together and help them engage with their surroundings.

“We want people to connect to the land around them,” she said. “Visitors can go out into canyon country and apply the knowledge they’ve received at the center and hopefully have a different appreciation for it.”

An interactive approach is very important to the mission of the center.

“When you’re able to touch, play with, and experiment with something, it becomes more tactile and people tend to learn much better,” Giangreco said.

“When you pick up a rock and are exposed to it, it helps teach people what the different colors mean, why it’s there and why it’s important.”

Bailey said that while fun and creativity are factors that are foremost in developing programs, adhering to science standards is also important — both for current students and the next generation.

“Our goal is to let them know that science is fun,” Bailey said. “Science can be understandable for anyone and is not as esoteric as many people may think.”

The center has a portable star-lab planetarium to visit schools and locations by request to reach local residents.

“Students get a chance to look at planets and the moon and learn about Navajo mythology,” Bailey said. “It’s cool to expose people to the planets and it’s very popular.”

Sitting on 48 acres of juniper and sagebrush and located in the gateway to Utah’s iconic Canyon Country, the center includes trails for hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing; a full catering kitchen and five picnic pavilions; an observatory for night-sky viewing; classroom and research lab; wetlands and pond; and a more than 16,000-square-foot building for seating up to 120 people.

The building itself incorporates state-of- the-art, energy-efficient technology into a design inspired by the Colorado Plateau’s aesthetic.

Bouldering and movie nights are two current programs designed to bring more locals to the center. Beginning around April, a shift in activities will be targeting programs for visitors as well, including marketing efforts focused on the Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix areas.

“We want to be beyond Moab,” Giangreco said. “It’s a niche market to those visitors who want that kind of experience. Here, you’re getting a similar environment without the traffic.”

Bailey, who is also involved as the outreach program guide, helps develop science-based programs for schools in the area targeting pre-kindergarten to middle-school children. The center also hosts many adult-education efforts.

“We want to broaden our programs to fit everyone’s needs and interests relating to the Colorado Plateau,” Bailey said.

To achieve this goal, the center is focused on cultural-sensitivity training and being inclusive.

“Our goal is to be welcoming to all people and to teach from that perspective,” Giangreco said. “There’s one perspective on the night sky many people are familiar with, but there’s a different understanding from the Navajo point of view who have lived here for hundreds of years.”

Ross said they want to celebrate people’s similarities rather than differences in understanding the region and culture, but to be respectful in their approach. “There are things in Navajo culture not talked about at certain times of the year,” she said. “We need to be aware of this.”

Giangreco is excited to share the Colorado Plateau with both visitors and area residents.

“We’d love to get everyone out to the plateau to see and experience it,” he said. “It gives people a true adventure in a part of the country that is one of the most beautiful, desolate, and isolated places. There is so much to see and experience here, and in today’s world, we don’t get outside enough.”

Ross echoed Giangreco’s sentiments.

“Everyone understands their own local place rather than one they don’t know in a different way,” she said. “The Colorado Plateau is a very special, beautiful place that people should care about. There is no other facility in the world that focuses on the educational values of the Colorado Plateau.”

The center has been made possible through various fundraising efforts, including memberships, donations, partnerships, in-kind donations, and volunteering. In total, $12 million has been raised through donations from individuals, government, corporations, and others for the Canyon Country Discovery Center.

Giangreco gives much of the credit for the center’s existence to Ross.

“Janet has had the vision to keep all of this together and has made this happen through the hard work she has put into raising funds for the capital campaign,” Giangreco said. “Through her relationships built from being a resident here for the last 40 years, she has made this possible.”

The center resides on the campus of the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education, founded by Ross in 1984. The school provides a wide range of outdoor educational programs focused on the Colorado Plateau, including youth and adult service on public lands; student, youth and adult outdoor education; and teacher training.

“All ages and backgrounds are invited to the center,” Ross said. “We’re not focused on one or the other. Anyone who wants to come and experience this place is welcome.”

Giangreco said he hopes the center will bring inspiration into the pursuit of the sciences.

“We hope it will spur more interest in engineering and advancements in technology to encourage careers for kids,” he said.

The Canyon Country Discovery Center is open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays currently and will transition to five days a week on March 21 and to six or seven days a week soon after to accommodate all schedules.

For more information and to book campus programs or for the planetarium, visit FourCornersSchool.org, call 1-800-525-4456, or visit the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education at 49 W 600 S, Monticello.

Directions: North of Monticello, Utah 1/2 mile located on the west side of Highway 191. From Cortez turn right on Center St. and Main St. head north 1.5 miles look for the Canyon Country Discovery Center sign to your left, the entrance is on your left. From Moab head south on Highway 191 for 54 miles look for the Canyon Country Discovery Center sign to your right. The entrance is on your right.

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From Arts & Entertainment, March 2016.