Learning math in gumboots

Learning about biology is much easier when you're wrist deep in a coyote. Chemistry is more pertinent when you're facing Faro's heavy-metal- and toxin-ravaged landscape.

Learning about biology is much easier when you’re wrist deep in a coyote.

Chemistry is more pertinent when you’re facing Faro’s heavy-metal- and toxin-ravaged landscape.

Social studies makes more sense when you’re speaking to a First Nations elder born in 1915.

“It’s all interconnected,” said Andy Preto, an “experiential learning” teacher at Porter Creek Secondary School.

For the past four years, Preto has run the school’s SASE (Science and Social Experiential) program.

Preto’s students still receive the full gamut of the Grade 9 curriculum—but they do it under the sneaky auspices of outdoor learning.

“It feels like you’re not working, but really you’re learning so much more,” said one student.

Preto’s wards spend a total of 45 days a semester in the great outdoors, either Telemark skiing, canoeing or embarking on multi-day overnight winter-survival trips.

Lessons appear almost spontaneously, rather than on a set textbook-based regimen.

On a canoe trip, students came across a set of abandoned electrical insulators—an ideal segue into the class’ unit on electricity.

Rubbing plastic strips against animal pelts becomes a lesson in static electricity.

SASE students are a yearly fixture at the Faro Sheep and Crane Festival, but they always find times to take a chemistry-themed trip to one of the former mine’s infamous open-pit sites.

“It also ties into our industrial revolution project, because we learn about the impacts of industrialization and consumption habits,” said Preto.

SASE operates outside of the standard high school system.

Preto’s students are not cycled from class to class, instead remaining part of a permanent semester-long “cohort.”

It’s a welcome breath of consistency in the otherwise semi-chaotic world of high school learning.

“You have the same kids on all these different experiences, so it’s very easy to tie the spider webs together,” said Preto.

Preto’s students even finish their final exams a full two weeks before other students.

Then, while their peers are bent over textbooks and class notes, Preto’s students embark on a seven-day Atlin Lake sea-kayaking trip followed by a wild-meat barbecue.

The classroom has a distinctly bush-like feel, owing to a litany of fauna-themed projects prepared by previous generations of students.

Traditional wooden fire-making tools are pinned to a bulletin board, the handiwork of a previous Preto student.

“She actually lit it to prove that it works,” said Preto.

Spears and other student-made hunting tools give the classroom the feel of a prehistoric armoury.

A motley assortment of bleached wildlife skeletons and mounted critters are affixed to the wall, their eye sockets staring blankly at students.

On a field trip, Preto’s group encountered an abandoned half-canoe left behind by a prior group of hapless river voyagers.

The group schlepped it back to the classroom and fitted it with shelves, where it now stands as a stirring totem to river safety.

A stack of creepy, weathered dolls sat in a wall-mounted cubby hole: key tools in the student’s avalanche training.

The dolls, equipped with beacons, are buried in the snow. Students must locate them, hoist them to the surface, and perform first aid.

A wall-mounted display hosts several student-made handbags fashioned from plastic shopping bag.

“You cut the plastic into strips, and then make it into a big ball—like plastic wool—and then you just use a crochet hook,” said one of the bag crafters.

Salmon fry swim in a tank near the rear of the classroom.

A fry with a warped spine wallows pathetically on the bottom of the tank: an ideal lesson on genetic mutation, said Preto.

Even Preto’s lunch smacks of the outdoors.

“It’s moose, it’s that moose, actually,” said Preto, pointing to a wall-mounted skull.

The skull’s crooked antlers are a pre-fabricated excuse for a lesson.

“These antlers aren’t symmetric, so I can tie it in to genetic diversity and talk about its mother and father, and their genes,” said Preto.

A dead goose lay bagged in the corner. A teaching tool for the class unit on reproduction, he said.

With the assistance of Yukon College-based biodiversity researcher Dave Mossop, the class will meticulously slice its way through the gooses’ naughty bits.

The day after, a wolf biologist was scheduled to drop by with a wolf uterus.

“These guys know more about reproduction now than I did in second year university,” said Preto.

“I was reading it out of a textbook and doing the bare minimum to get my homework done so I could go watch TV,” he said.

Wildlife specimens are a frequent feature of the SASE classroom. Preto’s phone number is well-known among conservation officers and biologists throughout the territory.

“When (students) are in the animal, they can really understand how muscles, tendons, ligaments, diaphragms, lung capacity come together,” said Preto.

“It’s more than the formaldehyde sheep eyeball,” he added, referring to one of the classic focal points of the Grade 8 science curriculum.

A regular cavalcade of experts and role models drop in to throw their hat into the SASE ring.

That day, a trapper was visiting the class, prepping students up for their upcoming trapper licence qualification exams.

“What is the recommended way to kill a live, trapped fox?” he asked in a quiz session.

“Shoot it with a .22,” came the answer.

On his heels came 94-year-old First Nation trapper Andy Van Bibber.

“What a respectful and noble way of learning about local First Nations, rather than opening a textbook or going to a museum,” said Preto.

It seems counterintuitive that students could descend into a whirlwind five months, and emerge not only with a Grade 9 education, but a host of outdoors, first aid and trapping skills.

In fact, marks often go up.

“I understood everything way more because it was able to stick, rather than just cramming for tests and then forgetting it all,” said one student.

Often, lessons even go beyond the standard curriculum, with students grasping concepts two to three years in their academic future.

“I’ve done regular classroom teaching, but I don’t think I could ever do it again,” said Preto.

“It’s like feeding a teacher caviar; it’s hard to go back to cereal.”

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com