Bidwell: Science has much to teach us about our world

Friday, March 16, 2018 10:47 PM
Marcie Bidwell

I imagine conversations in the Mountain Studies Institute office are much like conversations you’re having over coffee or beer. We’re talking about the snowpack and warm winter temperatures, wondering about runoff this spring, asking questions about our dry landscape and the potential for wildfire this season, reflecting on years past and thinking about the future.

Why? We are driven by a curiosity about what we see in the San Juan Mountains and the world beyond. We’re curious about the health of the trees in our forests, and how closely their health is linked to the health of the watershed; about what both short-term weather impacts and longer term changes in climate may mean for our local ecosystems this summer and into the future. And we rely heavily on science for thinking about all of those things.

Beyond these tangible examples, we believe there are a great many things we can learn from the process of scientific inquiry – about curiosity, observation, connections and innovation. Science has a lot to teach us about living in communities and how relationships work in the world. Understanding science can offer tools to guide decisions about our own health and the health of our communities.

When MSI staff invite volunteers and students to join our field research or visit local classrooms, we use science as a lens to see not only the river, but the watershed. We invite participants to think not just about this year’s snowpack, but to analyze long-term trends and what they might mean for the future. We encourage students to not only ask good questions, but to be creative and innovative in their thinking, seek diverse perspectives and to challenge their own assumptions to better understand the things we don’t know.

Every summer, we offer volunteers, college and high school students from our San Juan Mountain communities the opportunity to get out and experience the mountains, learn about habitat, water quality, invasive species, forest health and the impacts of a changing climate on local ecosystems and communities.

This will surprise no one, but students who participate in all of our programs inspire us regularly with their clarity of thought, their grasp of the immensity of the challenge and their inspired ideas.

For George, one of our students from last summer, removing invasive species inspired greater thinking about the ways we engage with resource challenges.

Lydia spent a lot of time in the San Juan Mountains growing up and she was fond of American pika. Through MSI’s two-week science field camp, she learned more about these furry alpine lagomorphs (same family as rabbits) and the challenges that climate change may pose to their populations.

Two weeks in the field taught Lydia, “Pika research is a very important step in understanding possible effects of climate change. I have realized the importance of Pika as a tool for understanding our changing world,”

We think Lydia is right and that monitoring pika is just one of many examples of the way science is a tool we can use to better understand the San Juan Mountains, to ask important questions about changes and to innovate creative solutions for protecting the place we call home.

Science is not just a tool for young students. In fact, science may well be the tool for keeping minds young and old curious, flexible and open.

With that in mind, we offer the following invitations:

Invitation No. 1: Remain curious. Put your science-mind to work during our upcoming “Fire Learning Series” beginning March 21 at the Powerhouse Science Center. As a community and with the help of experts, this three-part series will explore what this “winter” may mean for our forests and our shared future.

Invitation No. 2: Dive in. We’re accepting applicants for summer high school and (paid) college internships now. Both offer a range of other science-learning experiences.

Invitation No. 3: Think outside (the box). Every summer, MSI offers volunteer citizen science and service-learning projects to monitor the American pika, restore ancient alpine wetlands and discover what makes the San Juan Mountains so unique. Join one of our citizen science offerings for adults and families through MSI’s Mountain Discovery Center.

Marcie Bidwell is executive director of the Mountain Studies Institute, online at Reach her at Send applications or program inquiries to