Originally published in Points West magazine
Fields of Discovery
Ed. note: This article shares the story of a past series of summer educational programs. This year, our education department has several new and exciting day workshops and family activities planned for summer 2021. Get all the details on our FAMILY PROGRAMS page and sign up the kids!
By Emily Hansel Buckles
“When I’m just walking around, I see butterflies everywhere. I never knew there were so many!”
A student said this to me as we were packing up our van to return to Cody after a two-day Yellowstone excursion. I smiled at her, although firecrackers were exploding in my head. “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” I replied.
“Seeing nature in a whole new way” was the purpose of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Discovery Field Trip series in summer 2009. Students from around the region participated in these overnight programs, offered once a month through our education department. We designed the field trips to encourage middle-school students to observe nature and feel more comfortable learning and playing in the Greater Yellowstone region.
In June, we focused—quite literally—on capturing the natural world through digital photography. Our original plan was to take the students to nearby Heart Mountain, but it rained for two weeks prior to our trip. The clay soils of Heart Mountain became so slick that we couldn’t drive to the trailhead, so we opted instead to explore the Northfork corridor between Cody and Yellowstone National Park.
With their natural inclination toward technology, engaging middle-school students has never been so easy. We used digital cameras to help focus their attention on the most minute details of nature. We spent hours examining how ants decomposed a log and how flowers sprouted from old stumps. They looked at nature from various and interesting perspectives, which they captured through their lenses. Furthermore, at the end of the day, I was the one on our hike who had to ask them when we were going to turn around!
Our July field trip was a “Butterfly Bonanza,” but the exploration of butterflies was only half our “discovering.” For three of the fourteen students, this field trip was their first venture into Yellowstone National Park, and for another three, their first tent camping experience. I could tell that nerves were running rampant as the volume and speed of their chitchat increased as we got closer and closer to our campsite.
It took us close to an hour to set up our tents, and some were “hearing” bears at every quiet moment. But once we explained how to be safe in bear country—and where to find the port-a-potty—camp quieted down for at least a little bit and allowed us to prepare dinner.
In my experience with kids in the outdoors, I’ve learned many things, but one of the most important is this: Most kids, especially middle-schoolers, are very fussy about their food. Yet, if they make it themselves, it’s the greatest dish ever served. We taught them to make their own tinfoil dinners (a favorite of Boy and Girl Scouts around the country) and then completed our meal with a few s’mores. With full bellies, they nestled into their tents for card games. Despite the giggles, which only seemed to last until dawn, we all got a decent night’s rest.
The next morning, we began our butterfly inventory with the assistance of some great instructors from the Yellowstone Institute. The count was part of a national survey to determine the diversity and abundance of butterflies across the country. Scientists do not yet know much basic information about butterflies such as courtship behaviors, preferred flowers, and migration. Surveys like this one in Yellowstone provide good baseline data for scientists and help us better understand the needs and threats to these friendly fliers.
Over the course of the day, citizen scientists like us recorded more than fifty different species in and around the park. Our students recognized how fun and meaningful this project was and jumped in with both feet. For four hours, they ran through meadows with their nets outstretched, chasing down colorful and drab looking butterflies, and finding some “rare” species such as Hayden’s Ringlet that are found nowhere else in the world!
With our last field trip in August, we examined the “Ancient Lives and Current Clues” of Native Americans who inhabited this region before Euro-American settlement. Dr. Larry Todd, prominent archaeologist and Draper Natural History Museum Advisory Board member, guided us through this experience on a site in the Shoshone National Forest. In two days, the students were immersed in an archeological study. They set up camp (this time without port-a-potties), formulated research questions, surveyed the site on both a macro and micro-scale, and recorded their findings in journals and GPS units.
Shoulder-to-shoulder with other researchers, the students participated in Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating—a cutting-edge procedure that dates soil minerals based on how long ago they were exposed to sunlight. Students also found time to relax and enjoy the landscape around them. They tossed atlatls, hiked a beautiful ridge with an amazing view, told stories around the campfire, played cards, and learned to canoe. In their own words, these are some of their comments about what they learned:
“I really enjoyed learning about the people who stood right here 10,000 years ago.”
“I learned what to expect if you go into a career in archaeology.”
“I learned that archaeology can be super fun instead of work.”
“I realized how much I love the mountains.”
“I learned that I can have patience.”
“I learned that I could keep warm at night if I snuggle all the way to the bottom of my sleeping bag.”
“I learned that I am not as quiet as I think I am.”
So, what did I learn from all this? How do I see the world around me differently than I did at the beginning of the summer? First, I don’t see uninspired teens and preteens ignoring the world around them as they focus on iPods and cell phones. I see young people who are struggling to find their passion in life; I see potential young minds that are waiting to be engaged. Finally, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t take much to stimulate them—a little positive encouragement, our own contagious enthusiasm, and a place in nature to explore, play, and experiment. Like the natural world, kids continually amaze me. With their raw emotions and endless energy, they taught me to look more closely, change my perspective, and begin to understand.
About the author
Emily Hansel Buckles serves as interpretive specialist and natural science educator with the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Interpretive Education Department. For information about educational field trips, workshops, and other natural history opportunities for kids, visit our workshops page, or contact Buckles at [email protected] or 307-578-4110.