Teaching the thrill of discovery

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Monticello to house new ‘Canyon Country’ center for outdoor education

Who says a small town can’t do great big things?

Anyone who believes that rural Western towns and the schools within those towns are limited by resources need only look as far as Monticello, Utah, to see that with a little creativity and cooperation, big changes can come about.

This small town sitting at the base of the Abajo Mountains is soon to be home to the new Canyon Country Discovery Center, part of the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education.

The Four Corners School was established in 1984 by Janet Ross, who remains the executive director to this day. Ross, after graduating from Prescott College in Arizona, wanted to settle in the area and have a career in adventure education. As no program existed, she created her own.

Throughout the years of providing educational adventures (or “Edventures”), the school evolved into what it is today. The mission of the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education is to create lifelong learning experiences about the Colorado Plateau bio-region for people of all ages and backgrounds through education, service, adventure, and conservation programs.

Ross’s vision has been to educate people about the Colorado Plateau, the geologic feature that defines the Four Corners. The programming of the school encompasses natural history, canyon-country land use and energy, water and its effects on the region, cultural history, and astronomy and weather.

The Four Corners School educates its students in ways which run the gamut from river-rafting with well-known authors to canyoneering with archaeologists to sitting around the campfire with a Native American storyteller. Their educational practices are place-based, hands-on and fun.

Recently there has been a countrywide trend toward place-based education, which teaches children about all aspects of their communities, often involving locals in the teaching of the “classes.” Much of place-based education involves hands-on learning that takes students out of the classroom and into the outdoors.

In light of the recently passed No Child Left Inside Act, which promotes environmental education (HR 3036 and S 1981), even the federal government has realized the importance of children connecting with their natural world.

The education of regional children is what organizers of the Canyon Country Discovery Center have in mind.

In 1996, following the establishment of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt sent a science advisor to the Boulder, Utah, area to start a science center in conjunction with the monument. However, the community was not supportive of the project.

Then, in 2002, Bill Boyle, editor of the San Juan Record in Monticello, and Bruce Adams, a science teacher and county commissioner, approached Ross with the idea of creating the center in Monticello. After many a meeting it was established that this was something that the community not only wanted but would support, and the project was a go.

“I wanted the community of Monticello and San Juan County to be behind this project and we wanted to do this thing right,” said Ross. A feasibility study was conducted and a detailed business plan drawn up that included the schools, the mayor, the county commissioners, the town and of course, the Four Corners School.

What will the Discovery Center be?

A 14,000-square-foot facility will be constructed close to downtown Monticello and easily accessible for visitors. The main building will be a twostory, east-facing hogan for the handson exhibits. A long building will be attached, housing the lab, offices, a workshop where all exhibits will be constructed, classrooms, a conference room and storage for equipment. The building will be “green-built” to remain true to the vision of the school.

Once the facility is up and running, local schools (within a two-hour drive) will be invited to bring classes there for both day trips and overnights. Students will learn about all five core content areas on which the Four Comers School has traditionally focused. There will be a strong cross-cultural element to the program, which will include students from the neighboring reservation towns as well as teachers and regional experts from these same areas.

The exhibits will consist of intimate learning stations within each of the five content areas: astronomy, water, natural history, energy and culture. Each learning station will provide opportunities for hands-on exploration and learning for individual students.

The staff will be multilingual, speaking English, Navajo and Spanish, so that the learning is accessible to all participants.

For schools outside the two-hour range, Ross says that there will be a “robust outreach program,” simply meaning that if a school is too far away or lacks the resources to travel to Monticello, then the Discovery Center will come to them. There will be traveling staff and exhibits so that no school that is interested will have to forgo the idea of participation in the programming.

Ross hopes to keep costs for participating schools as low as possible. Schools in our area, or in most areas, do not have a lot of extra money for expensive field trips. The Discovery Center hopes to raise enough monies to keep costs to a bare minimum. The program is actively seeking funding through federal and private grants, fundraising and individual donors.

Ross and the community of Monticello believe the Canyon Country Discovery Center will aid in long-term learning. Studies have shown that the more engaged students are in the learning process, the fewer discipline problems there are, and test scores show marked improvement.

Science has traditionally not been included in standardized testing but that is changing, and participation in the CCDC may improve the potential of students being tested.

Place-based education serves the community in that students who learn about the areas in which they live tend to become more engaged in their home communities.

And this is not merely about the community of Monticello, this is an opportunity that will benefit the entire Colorado Plateau.

For more information about the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education or to donate to the Canyon Country Discovery Center, visit www.fourconersschool.org.

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From November 2008.