One of the Biggest Classrooms in the World

by Barbara Cervone, July 25, 2012

GRAND CANYON, AZ—Picking up the last of a thousand tumbleweeds covering a small beach along the Colorado River, Jarred gives a high five. Here at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the invasive plant threatens fragile life everywhere it rolls. “A single, mature tumbleweed can produce 5,000 seeds, sending this prickly, wiry weed in every direction,” Jarred explains. “Imagine the damage.”

For 15-year-old Jared and nine teammates, their 11-day journey from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the river and back includes other assignments. They catalogue the endangered bighorn sheep they encounter—eight on this trip. They compare photos taken in the 70s and 80s of beaches along the Colorado to how they look now. Their own photographs show that in some of the same spots, there’s barely any sand left, a casualty of man’s imperfect attempts—the Glen Canyon Dam—to manage the river’s flow.

The team also adds mulch to the biodegradable backpacking toilets on the trail from Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the river, a two-day hike in temperatures that can reach over 100 degrees. “Not your favorite thing to do on a bright day,” says Jarred.

And the teens kick back, running the river, cooking and camping in the moonlight, and making friends—as they learn about leadership and teamwork, discipline and endurance.

Led by five national park guides, a geologist, and a trip coordinator, these young adventurers are having a once in a lifetime experience. “You take what you want from the trip,” Jarred concludes. “It could be, I suppose, the worst time in the world. You can’t use your phone, you can’t use your computer, you can’t sleep in a bed at night. Or you can take away the best experience there is, sitting under the stars with towering canyons all around you, going down some of the biggest rapids in the world.”

“Time on the river”

Since 1998, the nonprofit Grand Canyon Youth (GCY), based in Flagstaff, AZ, has been giving high school youth like Jarred “time on the river.” The three professional river guides who founded GCY knew firsthand the river’s positive impact on the adults fortunate enough to experience it. They wanted young people to feel the exhilaration of this special place, too.

“You always learn so much that it makes you not only a part of the canyon, but also curious about life,” one youth wrote after her second trip down the river.

In addition to “River to Rim,” GCY lures teenagers from across the country with other trips of discovery. “Partners in Science” joins youth with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey. Between white water rafting and hiking, the youth collect data critical to understanding changes in the river’s ecosystem. “Grand Inspiration” immerses participants in the beauty of the Grand Canyon and invites them to write or draw what they see and hear. Their work is later exhibited at the park’s South Rim Visitor Center.

In another program, Native American youth develop their artistic skills against the stunning backdrop of the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado in southeast Utah that flows through the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Each youth receives an art kit to use while renowned Diné artist, Baje Whitethorne, provides artistic guidance. Participants keep their kits so they can continue their artistic journey at home. At the end of the trip, they donate a piece of finished artwork to include in a traveling Native youth art exhibit.

Giving back

Long before Grand Canyon Youth participants strap packs to their backs and descend more than 4,000 feet to the base of Grand Canyon, they perform community service where they live—two hours for each day to be spent on the river. They also raise money to pay for part of their trip’s cost, and parents and GCY match their amounts.

“We find that kids who have some experience with giving back are better suited to this experience,” GCY director Emma Wharton says. “They really want to come on this trip. You’re not getting kids who are here because mom or dad sent them, thinking it would be a good experience. If they had one common denominator, it would be the pursuit of new experiences.”

Wharton continues: “We get kids who maybe have walked in a city park but never have hiked in the woods, who’ve never slept under the stars. The common denominator is not kids who come in and say, ‘I just love nature, I’ve always loved nature.’ It’s kids who say, ‘I want to leave my comfort zone. I want to learn and challenge myself like I’ve never done before. I want to make a difference.”

Sometimes, though, the youth who sign up—occasionally several summers in a row—have hiking or rafting in their blood, along with a sense for the richness and fragility of the Grand Canyon habitat. Janine, who graduated from Flagstaff High School this June, comes from a family of river guides and has spent the past three summers on GCY expeditions. For two years, she worked beside scientists in the Partners in Science program, collecting data on the endangered humpback chub, a small fish once plentiful in the swift currents of the Colorado. The Glen Canyon Dam irrevocably changed the ecosystem for humpback chubs, and other fish like rainbow trout, she explains.

"The water is colder now because the dam blocks the natural sediment flow in the river," Janine says. "To survive, the humpback chub has moved into backwaters that are shallower and warmer." Janine and her teammates used seine nets to catch and count the fish, check their status, and log their location. "For me, it's a way of giving back, in this case to nature." In her Flagstaff High School, Janine did service projects as part of an environmental science club. In college, she plans to study environmental policy and management.

"It's a win-win," says Megan Kohli, Grand Canyon's program coordinator for immersion and service learning. "The park uses the data students collect, whether it be fish counts or beach erosion, to make park management decisions. When we are managing resources, we often need ample scientific data sets that are repeatedly collected during different times of the year and over the course of several years. The work youth are doing has a real impact."


Sound enriches our experience of the world and the immensity of the Grand Canyon sparks a connection with nature as few places can. On the list of threats facing this world-famous natural wonderis noise pollution. And anything beckoning protection in the park—most often with regulations—must be backed up by scientific data. The park used to have two full-time scientists dedicated to safeguarding the natural quiet and collecting data. Much of the data informed plans related to “overflights,” one of the biggest, controversial management issues in the park as commercial and scenic flights punctuate the silence.

When funding for the two park scientists ended two years ago, youth continued the project as part of their canyon explorations, with guidance from the park service's Kohli.

“They take out their palm pilots,” Kohli explains, “and they have a list of the different sounds they may hear—river rapids, helicopters, commercial jets, boat motors, birds, insects, human sounds. They click on the sound when they start to hear it and click on it again when the sound stops. With the data, one can determine which locations are more affected, are the natural sounds changing when the human sounds pop into the picture.”

Last summer, Grand Canyon Youth ran an extraordinary “Hear the World Sound Academy” for students of mixed hearing abilities. For one week, 17 students, some partially deaf since birth, worked together with acoustic scientists to collect sound data along the river. In the process, they discovered an entirely new way of looking at sound as a precious resource and hearing as a cherished sense. “I may not hear the music the same as the other dancers, but I can feel it in my soul,” Maryland high school student Mandi, a dancer since elementary school, writes in her journal.

Connecting young people to our national parks


WKCD has combined amazing images of Grand Canyon taken by Tucson, AZ middle school students—part of the Udall Foundaton's Parks in Focus program—with natural sounds gathered by park rangers.


A recent MSNBC News segment notes that rangers in our country’s national parks are seeing more than green this spring. “They're also noticing a little more gray." The average age of visitors used to be late 20s and early 30s. Now it is the mid 40s.

"If we do not do a better job of inviting young people to the national parks and providing the funding to be able to do that, the parks will become less relevant," said Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association. Jon Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service, talked about the importance of introducing youth to the excitement and discovery nestled in every national park, whether it be the larger than life landscapes of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite or petite parks like Great Falls National Park outside Washington, DC.

"For [young people] to know that not only they can come back, but they own this place, this is their park, [that’s key],” Jarvis said. The youth who take part in Grand Canyon Youth’s once-in-a-lifetime trips have made this connection.

“Think about it. This has got to be one of the biggest classrooms in the world,” high school senior Jarred says, looking back on his time on the Colorado River and the trails of Grand Canyon. “And it belongs to all of us.”

Grand Canyon Youth works in close collaboration with the Grand Canyon National Park's environmental education staff. The Udall Foundation's Parks in Focus program, which connects underserved youth to nature through photography, is based in Tucson, AZ; it partners with Grand Canyon environmental education staff to create immersion experiences for youth from the Boys & Girls Club of Tucson.

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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator