Last Thursday, the students gave an all-school presentation to their peers that demonstrated the rewards and challenges of real science. The Bridal Veil Living Classroom is an offshoot of the Telluride Institute's Watershed Education Project, spearheaded by local environmentalist and natural scientist Alessandra Jacobson. Jacobson said the term "real science" is one that is frequently used by the Telluride Institute to connote science at work in the field rather than science that takes place in the confines of a classroom.
According to Jacobson, the project was inspired by the Pinhead Institute's biodiversity studies that brought local citizens into the process of taking inventory of area species. Jacobson wanted to work with teenagers at Bridal Veil, which is essentially her backyard as her part-time home is at the Bridal Veil Power Plant, but was unable to coordinate her program to fit within the school year, since she needed the prime months of summer to study the plants and animals. So she took it upon herself to develop a curriculum that would provide credit for students willing to work during the summer, and brought in an intern form Colorado State College to help with it.
Since last June, Kirsch, Bush and Nelson have been working diligently at various facets of the project. The students set up plots at 11,500 feet in the sub alpine zone and alongside the watershed. There they spent many hours identifying plants and birds and mapping the diversity that exists in Bridal Veil Basin. They learned that a diverse ecosystem signifies a location's health, and that some species can show a lot about what is taking place in a particular region. They began to see their own backyards with new eyes.
Nelson wrote the following about her experience in the Bridal Veil living Classroom in an essay for her AP Composition Class at Telluride High School.
"From the water, where we happened to be studying water bugs, every direction you looked you found a great view. We were in just the right spot where you could turn one direction and see up stream, where the water twirled off the rocks into small fairy-like pools. The pools created by wet mossy rocks collected water from small waterfalls and poured it out like a teapot. This was real life fantasy."
The students finalized their projects be writing in-depth scientific papers and a creating stunning PowerPoint presentations. Nelson monitored plots in two different locations in the basin project to study how tree density affects the spread of bark beetles. Bush and Kirsch both studied the significance of aquatic insects in determining the health of the watershed. They compared insect populations in Bridal Veil with ones in Ophir, both above and below the Carbonaro Mine.
One Town of Telluride official has expressed interest in how the students' work could help provide insight into the future health of the watershed.
"The work that the kids did is intriguing, because we haven't seen a macro invertebrate study of the river in ten years, and a lot has changed in that time," said Town of Telluride Public Works Project manager Karen Guglielmone. According to Guglielmone, biological studies such as the ones conducted by the Bridal Veil Living Classroom can help provide a long term and holistic picture of the health of the river. "It's a great way to teach the kids and provide us with more information that we need," she said.
While Jacobson said she is excited that the work from her program may be used for furthering a larger study, she said the main mission of the Bridal Veil Living Classroom is to offer students an opportunity to become experts on natural history and to find themselves stewards of their environment.
"When we started this course, none of these students knew there were bugs in the water, let alone that you can use bugs to monitor water quality," said Jacobson. We all "live in such an amazing place in terms of ecology. It is so gratifying when you walk in these mountains and know what surrounds you."
Of working on the entire project, Jacobson said, "Most importantly, it causes you to care."
As for trying to turn on the more than 350 high school students to the wonders of real science, Nelson said it's not so bad being a science nerd.
"Your friends look at you funny when see a bird and you get all excited because you know how to identify it," she laughed. "After a while they get used to it."
Having just finished six months of intensive study, each of the students agreed that this is learning they won't easily forget.
Nelson ends her essay: "Everything hides under snow pack for winter. Although all is replaced every spring through summer, learning to appreciate the beauty is vital. It reminds me to be aware of the environment and the things around me."