To behold the meandering bends of the river, we can decipher the geological process of erosion. To watch raptors circling over a colony of prairie dogs, we can witness the predation cycle in the flesh. To travel downstream from a river’s headwaters, seeing the way that vibrant ribbon winds itself tightly around the existence of so many plants and creatures and people, is to fully grasp the importance of a healthy riparian ecosystem.
To see and to touch, to experience and to witness, are the key components of the educational concept of “place-based education,” or the philosophy that students' own local community can provide one of their primary resources for learning. The unique history, environment and culture of a particular place can provide the foundation upon which students can build their knowledge about their world, both outside their front door as well as across the globe.
Place-based education is the foundation of the Telluride Institute’s Watershed Education Program, which has since its inception provided a powerful learning tool for teachers across the San Miguel Watershed by getting regional students out, into the field, to learn the many lessons the river has to teach.
According to WEP Director Laura Kudo, the San Miguel Watershed provides an incredible place-based learning tool. “So much curriculum can be tied to it – not just science, but math, literature, art, history…it’s all there,” she says of the WEP program, which has been made available to all schools located in the San Miguel River Watershed, including schools in the Telluride R-1 School District and the Telluride Mountain School, and schools in Norwood, Nucla-Naturita, and the Paradox Valley Charter School.
Through the WEP program, these schools have been introduced to the San Miguel’s unique high-altitude ecosystem free of cost, through full-day and overnight programs directly related to their classroom curriculum and tied to the Colorado State Standards, as well as through such other programs such as the Bridal Veil Living Classroom and Real Summer Science Internship (summer programs for high school students) and local thespian Sally Davis’ Watershed Education Puppet Program, for children in preschool through first grade.
“Our main mission is to assist teachers in getting children out into the field, whether for full-day or overnight field trips,” Kudo says, going on to explain that all WEP programs were designed with the premise that education offers the best means of assuring protection of these fragile natural resources.
The Watershed Tour, the WEP’s most utilized program, typically begins near the headwaters of the San Miguel River, and follows its 75-mile course to the confluence with the Little Dolores River, with frequent stops at local landmarks including places like the Rimrock Museum in Naturita and a hike through the Keystone Gorge, and has been turned into an overnight program with a camping stop along the river at Caddis Flats campground in Norwood Canyon.
Each tour features local speakers and experts who share their knowledge about the area’s natural, cultural and human history, watershed geography, regional geology, and river ecology, further driving home the message that regional students have much to learn from their local resources.
Funding for all of WEP’s programs has been harder and harder to come by, Kudo says, noting that programs such as the Watershed Tour can cost the non-profit organization up to $1,200 per trip to sponsor. Other programs, like the Real Summer Science Internship, has been put on the back-burner due to recent reductions in funding.
All the while, WEP is pushing to provide more programs for local students, such as this winter’s new Snowshoe Hike field trip, in which Norwood and Nucla-Naturita middle school classes will learn about their winter environment while camping out at the High Camp Hut on Lizard Head Pass. The organization has also partnered with the Telluride Academy to provide “mini” Watershed Tours to the Academy’s water-based camps.
“With how much is getting put on teachers’ plates, and how much they’re being asked to do with less, we’re getting even more requests from teachers to provide these kinds of programs,” Kudo explains of the special role WEP plays in the region’s educational programming. Last year, WEP served nearly 700 young people in area, offering nearly all programs free-of-cost. Historically, the organization has been able to fund this programming through grants, as well as individual and group donations from the community. Yet in order to continue to meet the demand of local educators, WEP has begun a fundraising drive in which the group hopes to raise $25,000 by President’s Day Weekend in February.
“We’d like to begin to build our donor base, so that we’re on that list of groups that receive an annual contribution from members of the communities we serve,” Kudo says, noting that this marks WEP’s first community fundraising campaign.
Those interested in making contributions to enable WEP to continue providing its educational programs for local students can donate on-line, on the Telluride Institute’s homepage www.tellurideinstitute.org under the donate tab (all donations made to the Telluride Institute between now and President’s Weekend will go to the WEP program).
Checks can also be mailed to P.O. Box 1770 in Telluride, 81435. All donations dropped into the Wishing Well, outside Zia Sun on Colorado Ave. in Telluride, will also go to WEP.