All executive director of Teton Science Schools Chris Agnew wanted in high school was to learn outside. Although he didn’t explore the Tetons during lab, Agnew considers himself lucky: Growing up in Puget Sound, Agnew traversed the Pacific Northwest with family and grew to appreciate the outdoors.
“I had the privilege of spending most of my time hanging out in nature with my friends,” Agnew said.
In sophomore year of high school, Agnew’s passion for nature and his community coincided when he volunteered to teach fourth graders their mandatory environmental curriculum during spring 1994.
“After this program,” Agnew said, “I recognized the deeper value in learning outside the classroom in a more hands-on, authentic environment.”
That spur-of-the-moment extracurricular would define the rest of his life. Agnew stayed close by for college: He studied environmental education at Western Washington University and realized that “this goal of helping people learn outdoors” was his life’s work.
Agnew switched coasts for graduate school and earned his Masters of Education from Harvard. After graduating, Agnew worked as a field instructor for National Outdoor Leadership School, a nonprofit outdoor school. He then taught across the U.S. and worked at an educational company in India, but NOLS’s “immersive learning experience … that both taught about the natural world and social-emotional learning” pulled Agnew in once again. Agnew pursued an administrative role at NOLS that time around, overseeing its operations in the Pacific Northwest, Asia and Europe.
Agnew doesn’t think a classroom should be just between four walls: He struggled to merge “how students learn within a classroom and how students engage with the broader world.” But, in 2015, Agnew found the “power and authenticity of learning.” When he saw Teton Science Schools was looking for an executive director, he packed his bags for the mountains.
The school’s mission is to “inspire curiosity, engagement and leadership through transformative place-based education.”
To Agnew and his faculty, place-based education is the crux, and so much more than just learning in nature. Agnew believes that its focus on collaboration and education about a community’s ecology, economy and culture “sets young people up to be more successful in how they engage with the world.” Here, “students experience their world so they can understand and change it for the better,” Agnew said.
Place-based education is rooted in the founding of the school. In 1967 Jackson Hole High School science teacher Ted Major looked beyond his classroom’s window, ventured outside and taught 12 students in the Tetons’ untouched habitats. After decades of learning from the surroundings and for the betterment of the community, the rest is history.
Fifty-three years later, the school’s learning ecosystem — 15,000 students strong — owes it to Agnew and teachers like Major who took an educational risk.
“Our charge in education at TSS is serving our entire community,” Agnew said. Place-based education, Agnew believes, shapes students into forces to be reckoned with, community-changers and scholars — even at a young age. Agnew knows his students would never fully engage with the world if they were “coop[ed] up between four walls for 12 years.”
And seeing what his students can do with their place-based skills is the best part of the job. Asked about a memorable project, the pitch of Agnew’s voice softened. He described a traffic-flagging system created by the K-1 Teton Valley class, a classroom of 5- through 7-year-olds. “The city of Victor invested in a light system all because of their work,” Agnew said.
“Talk about recognizing these young people as contributing members of society at age 5,” Agnew said, beaming with pride. “When they’re 35, what they will be able to do will be extraordinary.”
As Agnew muses about the future of Teton Science Schools he knows there are hurdles. Agnew wants everyone to have access to the education the school stands for, but he knows some students can only dream about fourth period lab in Grand Teton National Park.
In an effort to increase accessibility, Agnew and his team crafted a dynamic school environment that has made waves beyond the valley. Whether it be place-based education teacher training or professional development for rural public schools, “all of the pieces fit together and each builds on and contributes to the others, which makes a truly powerful, impactful learning ecosystem.”
Back in Jackson time commitment and financials are two of the biggest hurdles for students in the valley, yet Agnew hopes that working with nonprofits like One22 will bridge this educational gap.
“Core to our future is making our program more accessible to the Latinx community in Jackson and other communities that have historically had less access to place-based education,” he said.
But the transition to remote-learning and increased economic hardships due COVID-19 hit the school and everyone in the valley hard. Teton Science Schools, like every other school, had to cash in face-to-face learning for a computer screen in mid-March. Agnew and his faculty did the near-impossible: crafting meaningful outdoor curricula while no longer having access to their outdoor classroom.
Teachers implemented synchronous and asynchronous learning in an effort to maintain student engagement with their communities, despite the distance.
“It was our teachers, our teachers, our teachers,” Agnew said. “They did a Herculean effort in the span of a weekend.”
On July 6 the school reopened its summer camp and wildlife tours — both with reduced numbers. Gathering in-person again, even in a curtailed capacity, will allow the school to once again do what it does best. Agnew hopes to continue to reopen this fall.
“While virtual teaching will play a key role in the future of education, we know that nothing can replace in-person, immersive learning,” Agnew said. “That will always be a core part of what we do.”
When the coronavirus pandemic is a distant memory, Agnew hopes to “see the organization demonstrate this powerful learning ecosystem you can only get through place-based education.”
He doesn’t have much free time, and Agnew laughed and quipped that “it feels like my hobby right now is navigating the dynamic nature of COVID-19.”
When his work schedule lightens up, Agnew enjoys biking and hiking with his children. The Tetons aren’t just the perfect place for Teton Science Schools: Agnew takes advantage of his picturesque backyard whenever he can.
“There are a few places on Earth where, on your drive to work, you can bootpack up a 10,000-foot mountain, get almost 2,000 vertical feet of backcountry skiing in and still get to your desk by 8 a.m.,” Agnew said.
Agnew’s dedication to holistic learning is as clear as day. High school isn’t just an intermediary educational step to Agnew. He knows his students will enact change wherever they go, creating “more environmentally sustainable, more socially just, more economically vibrant communities across the country.”