Badlands: Wilderness as Classroom

What happens when you put a group of New York City kids in the heart of the Great Plains of South Dakota? A place of wide-open skies, expansive grass prairie, towering buttes and canyons. Quiet stillness one moment and 60-mile-an-hour sandstorms the next. Roaming bison, coyotes and bighorn sheep traversing one of North America's largest fossils sites.

Since spring break in 2012, a dozen Upper School students and three teachers have been having unforgettable wilderness immersion experiences that original began as part of a pilot program with Badlands National Park in South Dakota. For Ruby Samuels '12, the trip was a true testament to the power of experiential learning. “It made us all," she says, “more appreciative of society's complex relationship with nature and more passionate about living and learning in the wilderness."

Calhoun's Upper Schoolers spend their days working with artists-in-residence, park rangers and a paleontologist, hiking the mountains, exploring, camping, and enjoying the open expanse of the landscape. They also participate in a cultural exchange with Native American youth from two local schools.

US photography and art teacher Gary Cohen and Ruby co-initiated the Badlands project back in May 2011 as an extension of Ruby's Junior Workshop study, an investigation of the efficacy of wilderness education. As part of her final project, Ruby produced a documentary called The Nature of Mind and Body, which explores her belief that urban teens are disconnected from the natural environment, and that educational and hands-on experiences with nature can create “a mutually beneficial and sustainable relationship between the wilderness and society, and improve the way members of that society work together toward a common goal."

Gary, who had been an artist-in-residence at Badlands a few years back, had an idea. “After seeing Ruby's film, I wondered what would happen if we actually tested her theories out," recalls Gary. "So I asked her, 'What do you think about us creating some kind of wilderness experience outside of New York City where you and I would collaborate on the curriculum?" Ruby was thrilled, and Gary's overtures to Badlands National Park couldn't have been better timed: When he got in touch with Julie Johndreau in the education department at Badlands, she was already developing an immersion camp experience that she hoped “would be a true cultural exchange merging science, technology and art, to bring students up-close-and-personal with the environment of a unique geographic area." Calhoun became the co-partner in the youth camp's pilot program.

“I was probably the least outdoorsy person to go on this trip, but I pushed myself to do things I had never done before.” —Farah Taslima ’13

From the beginning, part of the program was going to be about reciprocity. “We were committed to 'giving back,'" says US English teacher Ellen Kwon, who helped supervise the trip with Gary Cohen and US biology teacher Francesco Filiaci. Part of “giving back" meant sharing photos and reflections with the park's educational staff. The Calhoun group also created murals that Julie and Sarah [Feldt, Badlands photographer] hope will become a key exhibit to showcase both the park and the immersion program. Calhoun's trip was also well documented by a South Dakota public radio station and an article that appeared in, the Rapid City Journal, and on the Calhoun Badlands Facebook page.

But the really lasting impressions are those that were left with our Calhoun explorers. “The Badlands trip was very much a trip of personal growth for me," admits Farah Taslima '13. “I was probably the least outdoorsy person to go on this trip, but I pushed myself to do things I had never done before. Camping out was great fun and sleeping next to the coyotes really made you feel at one with the world in this vast open space we were in. I climbed mountains that looked like they could end me right then and there with just one wrong step, but I did it. The trip was hard, and a group effort. But I loved every minute of it."

Main Building 3rd - 12th Grades 433 West End Avenue New York, NY 10024 212.497.6500

Robert L. Beir Lower School Building 2.8 Years - 2nd Grade 160 West 74th Street New York, NY 10023 212.497.6550

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