by Julia Cummings and Kirsten Steinke
Every parent hopes his or her child will have a “Seize the Day!” sort of teacher—an inspiring, mind-expanding and life-changing instructor cut from the cloth of films such as Dead Poets Society or Mr. Holland’s Opus. But where do phenomenal teachers come from? How can merely “good” teachers become truly inspirational?
Mike Marlow and Brad McLain think they have an answer.
Designing Science Adventure Travel
Marlow, an associate professor of science education at the University of Colorado Denver, has designed and conducted science adventure travel to places around the world to support the practice of science teachers and student learning. After the excursions, Marlow noticed his fellow educators brought home more than just scientific knowledge.
“When we would explore the geology of the Southwest or raft through the Grand Canyon, the teachers experienced a new sense of risk,” Marlow says. “Taking these risks empowered the teachers. I noticed that it was impacting how they taught, and that they became better teachers for having had these experiences.”
After mutual friends introduced Marlow to educational researcher and documentary filmmaker McLain, they met for what was to be a one-hour lunch. Four hours later, they left with the idea behind XSci—now a CU Denver School of Education & Human Development collaborative that explores how experiential education can enhance effectiveness and enthusiasm not only for science teachers but for teachers from all fields.
Since that 2008 meeting, XSci has grown steadily. But with a $900,000 grant by the Merck Company Foundation, the program has been expanded in a big way. The grant funded a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, an African safari, research about the impact of these experiences and a national experiential-learning conference for a cohort of Colorado and Michigan teachers.
Last summer the Colorado teachers who received the Merck grant experienced the adrenaline and learned the hardships and rewards of climbing to the top of the massive, dormant Kilimanjaro volcano, the highest point on the African continent at 19,341 feet above sea level. They navigated the less-traveled Rongai Route up the north side of the mountain, savoring the delicate ecosystems and natural history along the way: a lush green rainforest, forests of giant plants, barren desert plains, snowfields and gaping volcanic craters. By night, they slept in tents. They celebrated on July 12, 2012, when they made the extraordinary Kilimanjaro summit. Their descent was down the Marangu Route on the south side of the mountain.
After the climb, they also had the opportunity to take in an African safari to view lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, monkeys, baboons, hyenas, cheetahs, vultures, and other free-roaming African wildlife. They also gained a new perspective on education and humanity by visiting an orphanage near Lake Manyara.
Corinna Woodruff, a student in CU Denver’s Urban Community Teacher Education program and a future science teacher, was one of the Colorado teachers who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and experienced the African savannah thanks to the Merck grant.
“I hadn’t really done much traveling when the opportunity arose,” said Woodruff. “I applied for the grant because it seemed like an experience that would be fun and a trip that would positively impact my identity as a teacher and a human being.”
Woodruff is athletic and loves the outdoors. She and the other teachers on the trip prepared for the Kilimanjaro climb by attending special classes on altitude sickness and studying Kilimanjaro’s wilderness and biomes. They also prepared for the physical challenge by hiking Colorado trails, including some at higher altitudes in Rocky Mountain National Park. “We got to know each other during the training hikes,” said Woodruff. “These are positive people! We have built strong friendships and camaraderie.”
For Woodruff, getting to the top was important. But inspiring her future students will be even more imperative. “I hope my stories and lessons will inspire students to seek adventure, to take risks and to achieve their dreams, whatever they might be.”
Published: September 4, 2012