Eco-curriculum at Vail Mountain School |

Eco-curriculum at Vail Mountain School

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailySteven Corenman, center, performs a compression test by hitting a slab of snow with a shovel Thursday by Black Lakes on Vail Pass. The compression test determines where the snow would slide if an avalanche occurrred.

VAIL ” The cafeteria at Vail Mountain School might someday be a gas station.

It’s an idea being thrown around by junior Nick Wilhelm, who wants the school’s next van to run off a clean burning substitute for diesel fuel ” straight vegetable oil from the lunch room fryers.

“We could just get what we need from the cafeteria,” Wilhelm said.

It’s not a crazy idea here ” it’s the kind of thing he and his friends talk about in class with the lights turned out (they’re saving energy, you see). It’s an idea he’s pitching to school leaders, whom he hopes to convince that fry oil in the gas tank is one more way to help the environment.

There’s certainly a culture of green at Vail Mountain School. It’s in the curriculum, it’s in the teachers, it’s in the students, it’s even in the soccer field.

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The eighth-graders are up to their heads in snow, shoveling away powder on the hills of Vail Pass until they hit the ground.

They’re digging pits to check for weaknesses in the snowpack. They identify the different layers and perform tests to see how safe a day of snowshoeing would be and the likelihood of an avalanche. Kim Newton says it’s a really good thing to know, especially for people who live here.

Much of the middle school science curriculum is dedicated to ecology, said Brett Falk, the science teacher. He’s not growing activists, per say, just teaching them to respect the world around them, he said.

So when it comes to science lessons, Falk said, he tries to localize it. His students are learning about pine beetles, forest fires , stream health and water supply with Gore Creek as their big example. He takes sixth graders to study the ponds in East Vail.

They gather water samples and look for microscopic plants and rare toads. His eighth graders do chemical testing of the water and measure dissolved oxygen, ph balances and hardness.

Someday, those students will be watering lawns, taking their families on camping trips and voting on water issues, Falk said.

“We really try to have our environment here as our classroom,” Falk said. “I want them to understand what they’re seeing, and if they gain that appreciation and respect, they’ll have a desire to take care of it.”

In organizing the Friday carpools to school, the mistake was once made of having the soccer girls do the driving.

“We were all waiting until six for practice to finish,” junior Blake Armstrong said. “We do sacrifice conveniences when we carpool, but it’s a good way to cut down on C02 and helps with our parking.”

Armstrong is leading a campaign to make carpooling an everyday thing at the school. The high schoolers already do it on Fridays, and he says they can often take about eight cars off the road. Many parents carpool, but he wants to encourage them to do it more.

“Every morning the parking lot is full of parents, so we want to see if we can share some more rides, Blake said.

Then there’s the big picture: a valleywide carpool day.

“It would be like ‘Carpool Friday’ everywhere. I’d like to get everyone in Vail carpooling,” Armstrong said.

A few students are putting the school’s energy bills under the microscope.

They’re working with people in the business office to find places where too much energy is being used and hopefully find some ways to cut back. Eventually, they want to become a certified “Green School.”

“We’re trying to create a school that’s more energy efficient, but before we do anything, we have to establish where we are now,” said junior Joely Denkinger.

Until they find those solutions, it’s been really inspiring to just talk about environmental problems and raise awareness within the school, Denkinger said.

She points out that many of the green initiatives, like the carpooling campaign, started in a very grass-roots fashion, just with a group of students speaking their minds after class one day. “We all realized we had these ideas, so we just divided them up and started working,” Denkinger said.

If anything, environmentalism is something that’s part of everyday conversations at the school, from the elementary kids to the teachers.

For instance, the middle school kids make a point to visit all the classrooms to talk about recycling, said Spanish teacher Betsy Welch.

“We already had a recycling program, but we saw that the middle school could have a bigger part,” Welch said. “They’ve taken over, and now we have a more visible, aggressive recycling program.”

The students are also involved in a wide variety of community service projects, which include installing bear-proof trash cans at camp sites and participating in cleanups on Vail Mountain, at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and in Vail.

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

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