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For the week of December 13 through 19, 2000

Sawtooth Science Institute connects learning to life

Nature freaks get a guide 
on the side

Express Staff Writer

Sometimes the difference between students being bored or enthusiastic depends on whether teachers act like "the sage on the stage or the guide on the side," says Christen Gertschen.

Christen GertschenChristen Gertschen talks about one of the exhbits at Sawtooth Science Institute, a Ketchum-based outreach field study center of the Idaho Museum of Natural History and Idaho State University. Express photo by Willy Cook

What she’s referring to is experiential learning. It’s one thing to listen to an accomplished scholar drone on about a subject. But an interdisciplinary approach to education can put the three "Rs" into context with field trips and hands-on projects, connecting students’ lives to the learning process.

Gertschen is the director of the Sawtooth Science Institute, a Ketchum-based outreach field study center of the Idaho Museum of Natural History and Idaho State University.

The center serves as a clearinghouse for a variety of resources, programs, projects and exhibits—all geared toward the local and regional study of natural science.

Teachers, students and the general public have participated in her classroom projects and field trips that she says are essential to awakening a person’s interest in a subject.

"It’s really easy to sit in a classroom and study flora and fauna," she said, but actually visiting nature where it lives gives new appreciation. People "become aware."

"I’ve seen it over and over and over. They become really passionate when they see it in the wild."

Gertschen has her own reasons for being passionate these days. For about a decade, she has run the institute out of her East Fork home and a tiny space in the Environmental Resource Center in Ketchum. But, now, thanks to an $80,000 grant from the Idaho Community Foundation and an agreement with the Ketchum/Sun Valley Heritage and Ski Museum, the center is taking over one of the museum’s three buildings.

The new space opened to the public on Dec. 1. It features the Digital Atlas of Idaho--a CD-ROM and Web-based learning tool created by Idaho State University and the Idaho Museum of Natural History. The atlas provides a wide range of multi-media information about Idaho’s geology, geography, history, ecology and biology.

Never heard of the Microsorex? Well, now you can easily learn that it’s the "aggressive, irascible and nervous" shrew—the world’s smallest mammal that daily eats its weight in insect larvae, pupae, snails and worms. Yeah.

The atlas is filled with color photos, range maps, and sound recordings of many animals.

The center’s new location also provides more space for a classroom, exhibits and project work areas.

Young students may find themselves recreating the Earth’s surface with a balloon and modeling clay. Because the clay shrinks as it dries, the surface of the balloon wrinkles. Inflating the balloon creates cracks in the clay. The clay ridges illustrate fault-block mountains on the earth’s surface, and the cracks illustrate fault-block valleys.

Arguably, the center’s most popular offerings are its summer workshops, which begin with a variety of classroom activities, multi-media presentations and discussions. Participants then move into the natural world to put the information into context. College professors and school teachers lead the fieldtrips.

Offered from April until August each year, previous workshop subjects have included birds of prey of the Tetons, the natural history of Island Park, Sawtooth amphibians and wetlands, and Ice Ages in central Idaho.

Gertschen said the workshops meet new state education standards that require public school learning to be hands-on, investigative and student-centered. At the same time, however, she said school field trips are becoming less frequent due to liability issues.

"Our society is getting so litigious, and it’s moving over into our schools," she said. "I hear from teachers every summer, ‘We can’t do field trips.’"

But Gertschen said she is developing new audiences.

Increasingly, senior citizens have been taking the center’s workshops. Gertschen believes that’s because they usually have the time to participate and Idaho State University offers a senior discount registration rate of $20 with an additional charge of $5 per credit.

For the future, Gertschen plans to develop a natural history lecture series at the new space, but for that, she’ll have to secure more funding. Right now, she’s writing grant proposals.

For more information, call Chris Gertschen at 726-1832.


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