By: Sarika Khanwilkar
Sitting on a school bus, chatting with a 12-year old, and struggling to slide the window down on a sunny day. That’s how my day started with Jackson Hole Middle School’s summer program students. We were on our way to hike to Crater Lake, documenting our adventure through the picturesque landscape with cameras, as well as recording wildlife through scientific observation and data collection. This was the fifth year that the festival provided cameras and guidance to students, who combined art and creativity with their outdoor experience.
I was pumped to be able to spend my day as a nature photographer. Who hasn’t dreamed of the uncertainty and thrills of day-to-day life that characterize the career of a professional photographer. Imagine the adrenaline of tracking down a tiger in India and observing its behavior, chasing a sunset on a Fijian beach, or witnessing a wolf pack track and hunt an elk in the Hayden Valley of Yellowstone. Photos of such natural phenomena spark my own curiosity of the world, and they tell stories that are magical in ways that words cannot be. The pinnacle of our day as nature photographers was jumping into Crater Lake!
The perspective of the lens prompted the students to perceive their backyard in a new fashion, and the pictures allowed them to share the story of their hike with friends and family. Once they learned to edit pictures via Photoshop, and picked their favorite one, the photo was entered into the Teton County Fair. Motivated by the chance to take home a first place ribbon, the students were careful to observe the surrounding vegetation, exhilarated when a butterfly fluttered near them as they clicked the shutter button feverishly to get the shot.
The results from the Fair are in and… drum roll please…there were:
20 1st places
16 2nd places
15 3rd places
This year, we were lucky to have the guidance of two Nature Mappers. With their help, and a topographic map and identification sheet of common animal species in the area, we collected data on the wildlife we saw. This was the first time that youth were involved with this Teton County-wide citizen science project. These initiatives, that allow non-professionally trained scientists to contribute to research, foster scientific engagement in the community.
This type of field-based work, that the students got to participate in, is my favorite part of science. During my ‘Field Studies in Biodiversity’ course in Ecuador, the intimate involvement in the process of gaining new knowledge was thrilling, and let me realize my passion for wildlife. Completing work in a lab would never compete with the experience I had studying in the vibrant rainforest ecosystem. Just as my class had let me experience both science and the outdoors in a different way, this July day was spent working up a sweat while contributing to our knowledge of the local ecosystem. Jackson Hole Middle School students and other citizen scientists contribute to long-term data that is used by scientists and the government to inform policy that favors wildlife sustainability. The youth Nature Mappers contributed scientific data that will make a difference in their community, which I hope inspired them to be more engaged with the wildlife in their backyards!
I was enthused by the transformation I witnessed, from middle school students into keen observers and masterful photographers. Perhaps one of them will be competing in the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival someday, or they simply realized they wanted to go on more hikes. Either way, this day allowed for nature to reveal its mysteries and magnificence, which will encourage lifelong respect for the natural world.