Indiana State University Newsroom

Learning from Yellowstone: Teachers take lessons to classrooms

October 12, 2010

Jim Kendall brought more than a summer experience back to his classroom at Booker T. Washington High School in Terre Haute this fall.

"Anytime you have the opportunity to get away from the textbook and bring the real world into the classroom, it makes it more enriching," said Kendall, who received his bachelor's in 2001 and his master's in 2008 from ISU.

Kendall spent 10 days of his summer at Yellowstone National Park. He wasn't there to just visit the sights of the United States' first national park, he was studying issues surrounding the park and adjacent lands. He traveled west with an Indiana State University Democracy in Action class for secondary teachers that for the third year used the park as a laboratory.

John Conant, ISU economics department chair and faculty leader of the stewardship of public lands in the university's Democracy in Action program, describes Yellowstone as a classroom in itself.

"Yellowstone National Park provides not only a really interesting, fun environment, but a real-world place that you can study the economic concepts as they are working themselves out, particularly through a public discourse and decision making over how these public assets should be used," he said.

Yellowstone stands at the center of multiple controversies concerning buffalo, bioprospecting, winter recreation and other issues. The group investigates democracy in action at Yellowstone where factions, opinions and groups collide in trying to determine what is best for the nation's first national park.

"The goal is to help our students to better understand democracy and really the participatory nature of democracy," Conant said.

In doing so, the teachers take those lessons back to the classroom to explore the national and local issues.

"It's a test case, but we can use that for any issue like the Wabash River and the Riverscape," Kendall said. "Who has a say here? Is it public land, park land, business land?"

By examining those questions, the teachers and their students engage in democracy, according to Conant.

In examining the issues, teachers incorporate different academic subjects. Conant said he encourages teachers from the same school to attend together in order to examine one controversy from different subject angles, such as economic impacts, persuasive rhetoric or the science of brucellosis transmission in bison and cattle.

"Multi-disciplinary is the way to do education in secondary schools," Conant said. "It's a far more holistic approach."

Kendall embodies that by using the park to study a variety of projects. He teaches government, economics, U.S. history and geography and uses Yellowstone in the varied subjects.

"Themes touch the social studies, touch the history, touch the government," Kendall said. "I used my Yellowstone experience as a mechanism to illustrate to [high school students] that when you have public land you have three or four competing voices."

Teams of ISU students studied the issues, then created their own plans for different issues such as bioprospecting and benefit sharing, bison and brucellosis and winter use with snowmobiles.

For the students, there didn't seem to be much debate on two issues.

"Regarding the winter use, they all seemed to have a pretty good compromise. As a general they understood about using snowmobiles for enjoying the park instead of using the park to enjoy the snowmobile," he said. "Bioprospecting was a nonissue. The park service should be getting funding. They said, ‘It's our park, shouldn't we benefit?'"

However, in studying the bison issue, the students found controversy that mirrors the ongoing one. Some students wanted to protect the bison. Others took a business approach that it was acceptable to kill bison to protect ranchers' investment in cattle.

Students at Lebanon High School also will be learning about and studying the bison issue from English class to science. A science teacher and two English teachers participated in the project and prepared lesson plans involving the bison Yellowstone issue.

"I love the area and the concept of looking the student as a whole person. They're not just in my class," said Molly Shover, an English teacher. "Science and English can be really connected. Either we can draw them on interest or they can see how it connects to this other area."

English teacher Courtney Symons centered her creation myths and trickster tales unit on bison. In incorporating myths and tales with bison, she had the students study bison's history and how that history plays a role in current activism.

"They always find Native American tales difficult," she said. "I think in focusing on a single animal to come back to, I think that made it more central for them. I think they've come to love the buffalo too."

Shover said her English class will study persuasion techniques different groups such as the Buffalo Field Campaign and ranchers use. She said she also will incorporate some of the science and literature.

"What it becomes is a multi-purpose thing," said Tim Curts, science teacher. "For some students there will be cross over, for some not. We will hit some of the creation myth, but we'll be more concerned with biology and economics."

The goal is to attract students to become life-long learners.

"This presents an opportunity that is true education because you're educating all the way to their souls," Curts said. "In this project, when you're educated to your soul, it allows you to touch others."

Participants in the ISU class walk through a field at Yellowstone National Park. Courtesy photo

Jim Kendall, Booker T. Washington High School teacher, poses in the snow pack remnant at Yellowstone National Park. Courtesy photo.

Lebanon teachers Tim Curts, Molly Shover and Courtney Symons have a discussion at Yellowstone National Park. Courtesy photo

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

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or