Editor’s note: This story originally aired August 1, 2014.

What do butterflies, pikas and a challenge course have in common? They’re all at the heart of the summer camp experience for teens in Kelly, Wyoming. Bordering Grand Teton National Park, Teton Science Schools offers a perfect setting for campers to study and appreciate nature. But as Rebecca Huntington reports students walk away with a lot more.

“Is this one lupine? Oh there’s a painted lady, I think.”

During a hike through the forest, high school students are identifying butterflies and wildflowers. Some have learned a lot about butterflies after intensively studying them and even photographing and drawing the insects, known scientifically as Lepidoptera. But others in the group chose a different focus.

“We had a choice of the Lepidopteras, the pikas and the open water project.”

Lewis Jensen is one of nine students in Jackson Hole Science Expeditions, a nearly month-long camp for students, entering 11th grade through college. He’s from New York City.

“The year before, I did give a speech on polar bears for global warming, and so that kind of drew me to pikas.”

Participating in the pika project meant getting up early and heading to a talus slope on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. There, the students documented the pikas’ every move. So what do pikas do all day?

“Forage, sleep, reproduce… pika stuff.”

Another pika observer, Buck Gwaltney from Denver, Colorado although he spent the previous year studying at the American School in Paris, says the students documented some interesting behavior.

“Pikas have a very low tolerance for high temperature. And extended periods of time at 20 degrees Celsius or above can prove fatal to them.”

In Farenheit, that’s 68 degrees. The students noted that the pikas spent a lot of time under the rocks where temperatures were cooler. Gwaltney says that could be significant.

“Perhaps, they are altering their behavior and adapting to become nocturnal.”

This science-focused camp dates back to 1967. It’s actually what started the Teton Science Schools. Now several different camps run in tandem, bringing more than 40 teens to campus all at once. One of the newest programs focuses on Sustainability & Leadership.

“Oh my God, I can’t do this.”

Wearing a harness, rope and helmet, Ayushma Ghimire stands on a pole suspended more than 40 feet off the ground. She’s attempting to walk across it like a balance beam but there’s nothing to hold onto.

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t look at us, look that way. We got you. Where are you going? Look that way. See the goal, see the goal out!”

From the ground, her peers reassure her that they’ll catch her if she falls. They have a tight grip on the rope that connects to her harness. Eventually, her confidence builds and she makes it across the log. Then, she leans back on the rope, and her fellow students carefully lower her to the ground.

“Belay off. Oh my God, it was scary…. so cool…so cool.”

“Nice work.”

Field education coordinator Josh Kleyman says they serve students from a variety of backgrounds.

“The diversity of students that we have from a socio-economic standpoint, from a cultural background standpoint, from a racial standpoint is really quite profound and very representative of the United States as a whole. And I think it creates tremendous beauty and richness.”

Back at campus, students break into song as they pack for a five-day backcountry hiking trip along the Teton Crest Trail. But some students like Bailey Treddenbarger have mixed feelings about the upcoming adventure.

“We have to split our entire group in two and so that was kind of depressing because everyone we’ve grown to know and now we have to say goodbye for five or six days.”

You wouldn’t think that splitting up a group of teens, who have been together for just three weeks would be a big deal. But Buck Gwaltney says it is.

“They have the right formula going on, and I don’t know what it is. But you can take a group of people from all over the country and all over the world, and you can build some of the finest, longest-lasting friendships that I have ever seen.”

Friendships that will last well beyond this summer and for some, may even last a lifetime. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Huntington in Jackson.


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