Mountain School: Celebrating 25 Years and the end of the Fall Season

MS Fall 2015 Cover
For the past 25 years, the North Cascades Institute has been teaching students about their wild nearby through the Mountain School program. The program started back in 1990 and was based out of Newhalem, WA. Tracie Johannessen, who lead the program when it started and is the current Education Director at the Institute, informed the newest Mountain School instructors during training that “Mountain School used to be based out of tents in Newhalem. Other than the location change (up to the Environmental Learning Center in Diablo in 2005) and tweeks in the curriculum here and there, the program has been consistent.”
The typical, three day program for fifth grade students has a simple ABC format: Abiotic, Biotic and Community days. As Tracie said, every student coming for Mountain School over the past 25 years has experienced the North Cascades in this way. This fall 1,230 students from 19 schools joined this legacy.
MS Fall 2015 Bus

Two students ready for an awesome three days!

After driving anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours on a bus, the students arrive with big smiles and arms full of luggage. Some of the schools have been coming for 25 years, so these students have been hearing about this journey from their older schoolmates. They then drop off the luggage and go through a humorous and informative orientation about the Environmental Learning Center, the North Cascades National Park, and what to expect for the next three days. The students are then divided into trail groups of 10 students maximum per instructor.

While all instructors have their own twists on different activities, the first day is always filled with Abiotic material. We work as a trail group to come up with a working definition for what they think that means. My groups usually used what they had been learning in their classroom at school. “Abiotic means things that were never alive, are not alive, and will never be alive” as one of my students recited earlier in the season. This means the first day is filled with discussions and rocks, glaciers, rivers, soil, air, and light.
MS Fall 2015 Beach

Students learning about water cycles on the beach of Diablo Lake.

In the evening, after an excellent dinner, we lead the groups on a night hike. For most of the students, it is the first time they have ever been in the forest after the sun has set! We encourage students to keep all flashlights off to let their natural nightvision take over. Nocturnal adaptations and the five senses are discussed before the tired students are ready for bed.
Bright and early on the second day, and with the foundation of many of the abiotic interactions at in the North Cascades, we then discuss with the students about what is biotic here in the mountains. These are the PCD’s: producers, consumers, and decomposers.
MS Fall 2015 E1T1

Student diving into the material about her “Each one, Teach one.”

Producers include all biotic organisms that produce their own food from sunlight. What comes to mind the most often is the various plants that we are constantly surrounded by: vine maple, sword fern, oregon grape, and western red cedar just to name a few. One of the most requested activities to do with students is “Each one, Teach one” where each student picks a plant, researches it, and teaches about it to the group. It both gives them the opportunity to gain public speaking skills and to learn deeply about a specific plant of interest.
The jewel of the trip for many of our students is the hike up to the waterfall. On this three-mile hike, trail groups go to to see the Sourdough Creek falling dozens of feet.  A popular spot for lunch, the waterfall is a wonderful place to stop and take in the wonder of the North Cascades.
MS Fall 2015 Waterfall

Enjoying the Sourdough Creek waterfall!

Going back down the trail, students find examples of decomposers (organisms that break down dead matter) to look at in our microscope lab. Decomposers can be put into four categories, or our FBI’S: Fungi, Bacteria, Invertebrates and Scavengers. Before the microscope lab, I like to take students to our large composters on campus. All of the food waste at the Environmental Learning Center is put into one of two giant tubs for bacteria to decompose.  Once they have broken down the material for a few weeks, the soil is ready to be put onto school and home gardens.
In our microscope lab, students get first-hand experience looking at the material they found outside in a completely different light. What usually follows is a discussion about what scientists use microscopes for and what we can learn from using them.
MS Fall 2015 Microscope

Looking at decomposers closely.

After a quick activity or two about consumers (organisms that eat other organisms to survive) we have dinner and get ready for the Skull program and Campfire. This season we were lucky enough to have a Park Ranger lead an activity about skulls with each of the students. Everything from the eye placement, types of teeth and length of nose are covered. We finish the evening with a fun campfire full of singing, acting and jokes just before the students sleep for one last night at the Environmental Learning Center.
At this point, the students have a strong foundation in both abiotic and biotic materials. The last day is when those two topics are connected on a deeper level with our day focused on community. Everything from silent hikes, webs of life and the moving Closing Circles drive home the point to the students that everything is connected and they are a part of nature too. They then travel back to their own community, brimming with stories of their adventures in the North Cascades.
Chris Girard, current Mountain School Program Cordinator and alumni of the North Cascades Institute’s Graduate Program, is excited about the future of Mountain School. “Each season we collect feedback from teachers, students, and instructors to keep improving on the program. We are currently working on incorporating more Next Generation Science Standards into the curriculum without sacrificing the experiential essence of Mountain School.”
MS Fall 2015 End
Here’s to the next 25 years of learning and adventure in the North Cascades!
Photos courtesy of Emily Baronich and Annah Young, both current North Cascades Institute Graduate M.Ed. students.


  1. Saul

    Great story, great place, great program!

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