As the Glacier Institute heads into its 28th year of providing outdoor education for kids and adults in national forests and parks, the non-profit is looking to upgrade and expand its popular programs.
It’s a goal many organizations pursue, but Executive Director Joyce Baltz believes it is a realistic one made possible through economy-driven course changes, donations and several grants.
“Our donors have really stepped up for us,” Baltz said. “They’ve helped us maintain.”
The Glacier Institute has partnerships with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Flathead Valley Community College, creating learning opportunities for all ages and outdoor interests.
The Institute has already begun upgrading equipment. It recently purchased two new buses for transportation in Glacier National Park, offering more space than 15-passenger vans while meeting Going-to-the-Sun Road size restrictions.
And with the help of the Boy Scouts of America, there will be a new building going up at the Institute’s West Glacier field site, where the previous building collapsed during the winter a few years ago. Thirty scouts will begin construction on this service project in July.
There has also been success with grants this year, Baltz said. The Institute received a $10,000 grant from the Unilever United States Foundation to pilot special single- and multi-day programs for at-risk youth, disabled and combat veterans, and intergenerational families from the Flathead Valley.
Another grant, $50,000 over five years from the Diane and Dorothy Brooks Foundation, creates a formal internship program for undergraduate and graduate students in natural sciences and environmental education with course credits from the University of Montana.
The down economy has also prompted the Institute to adapt its courses, Baltz said, including shortening course lengths and reducing driving distances. These changes help keep the outdoors classes affordable, she said.
Educating children in the science of nature is a major focus of the Institute. As the digital age progresses, it gets a little tougher to get kids outside, Baltz said.
“We feel that youth need the outdoors more than ever before,” she said. “There’s just so much to keep them inside.”
In the past 27 years, the Glacier Institute has seen about 23,000 kids go through its Discovery School, Baltz said. This program immerses kids grades K-12 in a three-day, hands-on field trip at the Big Creek Outdoor Education Center.
The students put their science knowledge to use, Baltz said, exploring orienteering, aquatic ecology, wildlife, forestry, fire ecology and other subjects.
There are also other outdoor classes for children, including naturalist camps, fly-fishing camps, backcountry courses and hiking camps.
Outdoor education courses for adults explore the national forests and Glacier Park with classes on medicinal herbs, wolves, grizzlies, wildflowers, birds of prey, river ecology and much more.
One of the biggest draws to the outdoor education courses is the Institute’s instructor list. Many of the instructors are heavyweights in their respective fields, such as Doug Chadwick, Denver Holt, Ellen Horowitz, Chuck Jonkel and Jeff Kuhn.
While the Institute has seen some drop-off in enrollment numbers for adult classes over the years, Baltz said the classes draw attendees from all over the country.
“People do come as a destination, and we find in many cases use the Institute class as something they build their trip around,” she said.
For others taking the classes, it’s a comfort to be on the trail with other people who specialize in outside activities, she said. It’s also a nice way to meet others with similar interests.
The adult classes help subsidize the youth courses, which Baltz said are deliberately underpriced so every child has a chance to attend.
As far as future program expansion is concerned, Baltz said the Institute would like to add some history and culture courses, and possibly more art-based activities, to its science offerings.
Baltz has been with the Institute for nearly seven years, and in that time the organization has stabilized its core finances. The Institute is proud of its past accomplishments, she said, and the future looks bright.
“We’ve rebuilt our (financial) reserves, and kept programs enhanced and growing,” Baltz said. “We are hoping to do more in the future.”
For more information on the Glacier Institute and its courses, visit www.glacierinstitute.org.
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