“OK scientists, all eyes on me,” calls out Aiyu Zheng ’18. “Let’s magnetize.”

Bundled in everything from pink snow suits to jeans and flannels, the group of six fifth-graders from Columbine Elementary School in Woodland Park quickly assemble in a circle and hold out their hands to lightly touch one another and draw their attention to the silence. A gentle wind blows, the leaves make a wave-like noise, and the sun beams down on a crisp November morning. After a quick recording of the weather, and bathroom breaks, the class hikes to an open space surrounded by trees and the bones of a deer, which Zheng uses to remind and explain the ‘leave no trace’ values that they must all abide by while at The Catamount Center.

Standing in a valley of spruce trees, Zheng begins her lesson on quadrants and the science behind what qualifies a tree as a sapling versus a seedling. At 9,800 feet, Zheng and 11 other Colorado College students live and take classes at Catamount and then apply their lessons to the environmental science curriculum they create and teach every Friday for eight weeks during the fall. The 16-week residential program focuses on environmental education and is known as TREE (Teaching and Research in Environmental Education) Semester. Now in its fifth year, the program is earning the reputation as one of the best learning opportunities off the CC campus.

Zheng ends her lesson by encouraging students to find a quiet place under a wickiup — a teepee built from large branches — or in the sun surrounded by tall, yellowed grasses. She quietly sits and plays classical music from her portable speaker and lets it intertwine with the nature that surrounds them. These moments are important. As one TREE student, Olivia Martinez ’20, says, it is the “spirit stuff” that many find important in these lessons. The undergrads are focused on teaching but Martinez adds that they grow to see the bigger picture, which is also to provide this younger generation with an understanding of the environment and how decisions have importance.

Maggie O’Brien ’20 finds herself taking students to their imaginary city in the woods. O’Brien encourages her students to play pretend, climb on rocks, and make up stories. After an intense day of charts and science, O’Brien says these moments are just as valuable. Stepping onto a branch bridge and walking over a mostly frozen brook, she and her students make their way to the busses that will take them back to school, leaving behind the wings of a bluebird that they laid out and looked at after discussing what might have happened.

“It’s been pretty life-changing, as corny as that sounds,” says Connor Nolan ’20. “It’s really set up to help you at this stage in life, which I really needed. I went into this year not really knowing what my major was going to be and now that I do I am really excited for the next couple of years at CC. It’s such a unique opportunity to not only get to live out at Catamount but to teach what we teach and have such a big impact on the kids, which I think is really, really valuable and the most important part.”

After a last day that consists of teaching in unseasonably warm weather in front of a teepee classroom, Nolan sends his students off on the school bus. It was not yet time for final goodbyes but there would no more jaunts through the woods or lunches of joking under the trees with his students. His next visit would be at Columbine Elementary to begin rehearsing with fifth-graders for their expo night where they present the semester’s research findings on everything from animal scat to tree growth to erosion concerns to their parents and the community.

Off campus, and off the grid

Although TREE is grouped with other study-abroad programs that Colorado College offers, it is not your typical trip away. Just 26 miles from campus, Catamount has been described by students as the best glamping experience ever, but in its truest iteration, it offers a learning community focused on sustainability and environmental inquiry. In other words, CC students walk the walk and talk the talk. Students load in their own wood to help heat the dorms they live in, they practice sustainable showering and water consumption practices, and maybe most surprisingly, they live without or with limited access to electronics since rural WiFi makes most streaming impossible.

“It is like glamping all the time. It is so cool. You get the opportunity to live in the middle of Pike National Forest, and you know, go on a hike right outside of class but also have a warm shower and bed at night,” says Nolan. “It is definitely a slower pace. I kind of like not having WiFi and cell service because it really helps you focus and think about your teaching.”

This approach is intentional, according to Environmental Science and Education Professor Howard Drossman, who teaches all the undergraduate classes at Catamount.

“Sustainability is not about things and technology, it is about people. We are off the grid so living sustainably is about learning to live without your electronics every day, which is another nice lesson for them to get up there,” says Drossman. He and current TREE Research Director Ally Ede ’14, MAT ’18, started TREE after a conversation and a pinky swear. After creating a business model and much planning with other team members including TREE Education Director Jared Mazurek MAT ’17, Ede, Drossman, and three other students entered CC’s 2014 Big Idea contest and the project tied for third place, which provided the seed money to make their idea grow.

The lessons are working. Five years later, TREE received the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education Innovative Program Award. This year TREE also became one of only eight accredited environmental education programs in North America and one of only two undergraduate programs in the country to receive this distinction by the North American Association for Environmental Education. This is in large part due to Drossman’s master environmental educator portfolio process that students have to complete for the class. The portfolio is one that many professionals in the field complete after five years in the profession while CC students are reaching this goal after their science coursework and the intensive TREE Semester program.

From seedlings to saplings

After a few weeks of rehearsing with students, creating poster boards of their findings and notecards for their presentations, TREE Semester undergraduates are gathered at Columbine Elementary with their students. It is the big reveal and the school is packed with families ready to hear from fifth-graders about their semester of research. One team enthusiastically discusses the different samples of animal scat they have on display. One of Zheng’s students, dressed in a vest and tie, musters up the courage to discuss saplings and seedlings. One student brings his mother over to meet his teacher, Nathan Agarwal ’19, and to their surprise, he flaps his arms, hugs Agarwal, and then bursts into tears as he runs to the exit. Agarwal touches his heart. The night is full of tearful goodbyes as these fifth-graders realize the adult relationships they have developed with the undergrads are coming to an end.

“For us who are undergrads it is a pretty rare, almost unheard of, opportunity to be able to teach like this,” says Nolan. “So to be able to see that you can have such an impact on students at that age is pretty amazing.”

Nolan mentions he got an “awesome” letter from a student. When coaxed, he pulls it out and looks at it. Then he reads.

“He said, ‘Dear Mr. Nolan, Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for spending your time with me. I loved the party and tag. I liked the picture with the group. I loved skit time and will also miss you. I hope these cards will help you remember me. I liked our first skit and our second skit. I hope you like your Christmas present.’”

Shaking his head, Nolan folds it up and places the card and drawings in his bag. “It’s awesome, so awesome. It makes it all worth it.”