FHTMS Students at Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. Front L-R:  Lindsay, Rachel, Avery, Lydia, Nisha, Lauren, Trey, Jesse. Middle L-R:  Katherine, Haias, Becca, Cat, Gabe, Holly, Annabella, Makayla, Claire, Kate. Back L-R: Sarah Meisenzahl, Mayve, Jacob, Kris Kenlan, Kevin Kenlan, Tristan, Kally (HS intern), Amelia Lutz.

Expedition: Yellowstone!

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Thursday May 21, 2015

Twenty-one students from F.H. Tuttle Middle School, four teacher leaders, and one South Burlington High School intern recently returned from a week in Yellowstone National Park where they spent their April vacation. Established in 1872, Yellowstone is the world’s first national park and contains approximately one-half of the world’s hydrothermal features, including over 300 geysers.

The students visited the park as participants in the award-winning program called Expedition: Yellowstone! The National Park Service designed the program in the 1980’s for middle school students in response to the belief that education is the key to preservation. The group spent five days living at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, tucked into the northeastern corner of Yellowstone. The ranch used to be the site of efforts to restore the natural herds of bison that once roamed in the millions across the western plains. The Buffalo Ranch is now the home of the Expedition: Yellowstone! program in the fall and spring. Students live in small cabins; prepare and serve meals in the communal “bunkhouse,” which serves as classroom, cooking, and dining space. They investigate the geology, ecology, and history of Yellowstone through a combination of classroom activities, day hikes, and fieldwork.

On the first afternoon of the program, Ranger Michael Breis met our group as we pulled into the ranch. Students got a tour of the facilities, learned the safety guidelines and procedures, and then it was off on our first hike to a location high above the Buffalo Ranch where the Lamar Valley, dotted with bison, spread out below our vantage point.  

That evening, to prepare for the following day’s focus on park geology, students created their own national park models and experimented with the different forces of erosion that have shaped the park over time. They also observed a simulation of the volcanic eruption that led to the formation of the park’s current geological features.

On day two of the expedition, Geology Day, students explored Norris Geyser Basin and Mammoth Hot Springs. They met Ranger Trudy Patton, the second park ranger who worked with the group during the week. The students distinguished between the different thermal features, learned the necessary “ingredients” for each thermal feature (P2HEW! - Plumbing, Preservation, Heat, Earthquakes, and Water), took temperature and pH readings, identified some of the different heat-loving organisms that inhabit hot springs, and compared their results between the two study areas.  

After preparing, serving, and cleaning up from dinner, students worked with Ranger Patton in preparation for Ecology Day. Students examined the skulls of different wildlife species, distinguishing between predator and prey; carnivore, herbivore, or omnivore; and aquatic or terrestrial by observing the placement of eyes and studying the types and arrangement of teeth.

Ecology Day started with a visit with a wolf expert and observing members of one of the packs of wolves that have populated the park since their reintroduction in 1995. A daylong hike took the group to the junction of two of the park’s major rivers, and provided numerous opportunities for games, journaling, and activities. Each event deepened students understanding of the ecological relationships within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

History Day included activities that exposed students to some of the important events in the Yellowstone timeline. They visited a Native American wikiup and tent ring, learned about the early fur traders and mountain men, and found artifacts from 1886 - 1918 when the U.S. Army protected the park.

By promoting an understanding of the geology, ecology, and history of the Yellowstone Ecosystem, the National Park Service hopes that today’s students will become thoughtful decision-makers for Yellowstone and for wherever they call home.