Indiana State University Newsroom

Not just tourists: Teachers travel to Yellowstone as part of ISU course

July 28, 2011

In this class, teachers are the students.

Educators from around Indiana comprised the eager learners of "Natural Resource and Public Economics: Land Use Conflicts in Yellowstone," a summer course offered by Indiana State University. Designed specifically for secondary teachers, it drew participants from Martinsville, Lawrenceburg and Lebanon, among others.

After four days of prep at ISU, teachers headed to Yellowstone National Park for a field-based learning experience, where they were able to explore the park in a unique way.

"If I would have been a tourist traveling with my family, we would have gone to all the spots, we would've oohed and ahhed over Old Faithful, and we would've gawked at the wildlife," said Tressa Earley, a teacher at Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute. "We would've just done the tourist thing."

She's not alone. The average tourist travelling through Yellowstone National Park will almost certainly stop to take a picture of the snow-capped mountains, trek on one of the 1,100 miles of trails available for hiking, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of a bear or two.

But something the majority of visitors may not notice are the issues surrounding America's first national park. There are several long-standing disputes which go largely unnoticed by the general public and stretch beyond the highly publicized wildfires of the late 1980s.

Local ranchers have a beef with the bison, which can carry brucellosis, a disease owners fear may spread to their cattle and cause their entire herd to be destroyed.

Dispute over winter use of the park runs year-round, fueled by tourist-toting snowmobiles. Additional controversy entered along with the wolves, whose reintroduction to the park nearly 10 years ago still causes disagreements today.

Those are the three issues the 12 participants focused on during this experiential learning course. While in Yellowstone, they explored the economics, politics and science behind the issues on a personal level, visiting with local ranchers, volunteers and park service officials.

Rick McIntyre, a biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project, hasn't missed a single day studying wolves in the park in more than 11 years. Name any wolf that has lived in the park during that time and he can tell everything about it, from a description of its personality to the day it died. Advocating for the wolves, he described the valuable role the intelligent animals play in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

But after the group begins to lean in favor of the endangered species, they meet with Montana rancher Martin Davis, who explains how his costs have increased by one third with the reintroduction of the wolves.

An example of that is the amount of time Davis spends checking on his cattle. "In time past, we figured once a week to check on them. That was in the old days. Now we feel like we've about got to check on them about every other day." He said the extra effort is necessary to make sure cattle aren't being harassed and a calf hasn't been lost to wolves.

Davis and McIntyre offer just two perspectives of an issue which has many ifferent viewpoints. In fact, almost every problem facing Yellowstone National Park proved to be quite complex, making it difficult for participants in the course to decide where they stand on the issues.

"The jury is still out," said Earley, referring to the problem of brucellosis. "I can't decide."

After hearing from advocates on all sides, teachers often change from their original opinions about what should be done.

"That's the hope, at least," said John Conant, chair of the ISU economics department and director of the Center for Economic Education. He hopes that as participants become more informed, they'll be able to see the problems in a new light. Although teachers' attitudes often shift during the pre-departure classroom sessions, Conant said the real change happens in Yellowstone.

"When we go out into the field and teachers get to hear the stakeholders, how the issues affect their lives and the passion they have for the particular issue...they get a more holistic view of what the issues are and hopefully that changes their opinion some," he said.

Sarah Scott teacher Mary Ann Lee agreed, saying her thoughts on the issues are still changing.

"I'm still not decided," she said. "There are no easy answers."

Teachers leave the course with lesson plans, teaching resources and a way to use Yellowstone's real problems to bring to life topics like economics and politics.

That's what Barbara Pittner, a teacher from Lawrenceburg, plans to do in her high school classroom.

"I want to describe the issues in a way that explains how economics and government are intertwined."

The problems facing Yellowstone are complicated enough that they relate to a variety of different subjects. Lee and Earley will co-lead a social studies class this year and plan to use Yellowstone to interest their students.

"Almost the first whole nine weeks of seventh grade curriculum is geography, and during the five themes of geography we are going to completely intertwine Yellowstone and our experience there," said Earley.

The largest portion will be a two-week unit on human environment interaction.

"You have this beautiful place like Yellowstone that all of us enjoy. But the citizens that live in Montana and Idaho, how does the park affect them?" said Lee. "This is their home."

However they choose to use it in their classrooms, teachers will take their experiences in Yellowstone and translate them into something meaningful for their students.

"The goal is to help secondary teachers find a sort of experiential learning experience that would allow them to create a similar experience with their own students," said Conant.

Earley said she could sum up her whole experience in Yellowstone with just one simple word. "Wow."

"If only every kid could have a chance to learn like that," she said with a sigh. "I'm fired up."

Photos: - Teachers and others participating in an Indiana State University summer class at Yellowstone National Park included (from left) Julia Costello, John Jackson, John Garner, Tressa Earley, Bethany Donat and Chris McGrew. - Participants in an Indiana State University summer class at Yellowstone National Park set up their cameras to photograph bison at the park. - Martin Davis is among Montana ranchers concerned about the impact on their livestock by wildlife from nearby Yellowstone National Park. The controversy was among topics addressed during an Indiana State University summer class at the park.

Contact: John Conant, professor and chair, department of economics, Indiana State University, 812-237-2160 or

Writer: Bethany Donat, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3773 or








Story Highlights

Teachers from around Indiana took part in an ISU summer class examining the economic and political issues surrounding bison and wolves in and around Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Monana.

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