By Gary Wockner

How would you feel if your14-year old daughter went on a week-long school trip and came home happy and smiling and said, "I feel invincible!"

This past week, I was lucky enough to see this transformation several times.

Last week, I was a parent chaperone on a week-long fieldtrip to Saguaro National Park with a dozen 9th-grade students from the Polaris Expeditionary Learning School. It was a great trip filled with rigorous science and academics in which all of the students came home with a strong sense of accomplishment and learning.

Prior to our visit to Saguaro National Park, the students spent a few weeks studying about the four desert ecosystems in the U.S. - the Mojave, Great Basin, Sonoran, and Chihuahan. In Saguaro National Park - which is in the Sonoran desert - the students embarked on hands-on learning about the desert. They learned about desert plant adaptations and they got to see the real-life plant structure that they observed back in Fort Collins using dissection kits and microscopes.

Also prior to the visit, the students contemplated the impacts of global warming on the Sonoran ecosystem - they conceived of a hypothesis and put together a flowchart of expected outcomes due to climate change. During our visit, the students met with a Park employee who was a regional expert on the impacts of global warming on the Park. The locally expert knowledge helped the students fine-tune their hypothesis so they could further investigate climate change issues when they returned to Fort Collins.

The highlight of the trip was a three-day backpacking adventure where we got to live in the desert and literally touch, feel, smell, and see the Sonoran ecosystem. Our first day, we started near the visitor center east of Tucson. We hiked seven miles up Tanque Verde Ridge Trail to our backcountry camp at Juniper Basin. It was a long hike that included 3,000 feet of elevation gain.

The second day - another long seven-miles - we hiked to the top of Tanque Verde Peak (7,049 feet), and then down to Cow Head Saddle, and then farther down to Douglas Spring where we camped for the night. The third day, we hiked back out to the edge of the Park and then shuttled back to our vans at the visitors center.

For most of the students it was one of their first backpacking experiences, and it was met with extraordinary success! Much of the success was due to excellent pre-trip organization - the food, backpacking gear, and the positive attitudes were all pre-tuned for success. The great campfires at night helped, as did the camaraderie of hiking and sharing the experience with each other.

Our trip leader, Cree Bol, is the "adventure coordinator" for Polaris School. Cree has been leading trips for over twenty years at the adult, college, and K-12 level, and she has significant international wilderness experience. I was amazed at how successfully she could take a potentially challenging situation and turn it into a completely positive outcome.

In addition, Polaris has a group of student leaders called "PALS" - Polaris Adventure Leaders. PALS go through a training trip in the summer, and then help lead the school adventure trips during the school year. We had two PALS on our trip, a 12th grader and an 11th grader. Ideally - and our trip was an ideal example - students lead students, and the educational and leadership qualities trickle down to the lower grade levels. The PALS program is currently being expanded and will include other PSD schools in the 2008/9 school year. This summer, it will include a "Hispanic Institute for Leadership and Learning" - HILL - program that will help train PSD students interested in Hispanic leadership opportunities.

This is the first year for Polaris as a formal PSD public school, and like our trip, Polaris has had great success this year. In the 2008/9 year and beyond, Polaris will be launching more programs and trips aimed at college preparation and leadership, some of which will be awarding college credit to high school students, much like the I.B program but with more of an environmental and trip-oriented focus. Polaris uses the "expeditionary learning" curriculum, a national model that is in over 120 schools in the U.S. Expeditionary Learning focuses on hands-on learning, real-world leadership training, and effective community service.

In Saguaro National Park, our learning was certainly hands-on and the leadership training was real-world. Hopefully, the study of climate change on the Park ecosystem can translate into service opportunities where students can continue to spread knowledge about this global challenge.

As a parent at Polaris, I get great satisfaction in knowing my children are getting challenging academic and adventure opportunities. It's also great for me to join them on trips - I learn much, and I also get to hang around a great group of teenagers as they embrace new challenges.

When we arrived back at the school in Fort Collins, we all stood in a circle and were asked to come up with one word that described the trip - "awesome," "great," "cool," and "thrilling" were some of the words used. My favorite was from the 14-year old girl who said "invincible." The teenage years are challenging, for sure, and if we can get all of our students to "invincible," we are doing great work.

Gary Wockner, PhD, (garywockner.com) is a writer and ecologist in Fort Collins.
Polaris School: http://www.psdschools.org/schools/polaris/
Expeditionary Learning: http://www.elschools.org

Photos below:

Adventure leader, Cree Bol, gives morning instruction to the Polaris 9th graders.

A group of Polaris students at the top of Tanque Verde Peak, 7,049 feet.

The Polaris backpack crew. Saguaro's in background.