John Harlin is the director of the LAS Alpine Institute. Before LAS, he was a senior fellow at The Mountain Institute following 30 years as an editor and writer at several mountain magazines. The story below comes from Mr. Harlin’s article about the Alpine Institute in Panorama magazine 2016.
You know the expression, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” That’s sometimes what it feels like here at LAS. Each year we bring hundreds of students from around the world to one of the most beautiful places on this fair planet. A lot of them drag their feet between classrooms until they can return to the dorm to watch videos in their rooms with the curtains drawn to keep out Leysin’s famous sunlight.
Okay, that’s not entirely fair, as you’ll see if you read on. But sometimes the challenge seems as large as the peaks on our horizon. Take this feedback, for example, written by a student during LETS Science Day in October (see page XX for more information on LETS day):
“Today was a really bad day. We had to dig and take pictures of things, and you have to hike. I’m not interested at all in what we did, but some people like it because it’s a new experience or it’s an adventure for everyone.” Or this: “I hate it with all of my heart! It was a good experience in things I never want to do again.”
Is this feedback discouraging? Not in the least. In fact, overcoming reactions like that lies at the core of our mission. We’ve launched the Alpine Institute to inspire our students to love and learn from Leysin’s landscape, and to grow personally in the process. As you’ll discover in several of the following interviews, building a connection to one’s local environment while developing the physical and teamwork skills this requires are vital for developing a child into a healthy adult.
Not everyone will end up drinking from our mountain streams, but when we look for inspiration from our students, there’s plenty to draw from: “The highlight was definitely digging the soil pit. It was just a lot of fun and a good laugh. I met and worked with people I didn’t know before, which was cool. I enjoyed the leadership opportunity. I think it inspired me to try more leadership activities at LAS.” -Aoki S. ‘18. There were many similar comments from October’s LETS Day, heavily laced with words like “exciting,” “important,” “science,” “tiring,” “worthwhile,” “beautiful,” and “I hope we’ll do this again next year.”
So what exactly is the LAS Alpine Institute? The Institute is mostly a spirit, an inspiration. Teachers tap into this spirit, and it grows. Teachers open their classroom doors and their after-school activities to the changing forests, the crevassed glaciers, the bloody and beautiful history of our home, the place where for a few precious years our students will learn to breathe and to think.
What the Alpine Institute accomplishes with students is up to the teachers, some of whom have been doing similar work since long before I arrived last year as the coordinator for the GLOBE science program and the International Award. As you may have read in Panorama 2015, GLOBE is NASA’s 20-year-old program, “Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment,” where students follow certain protocols that turn them into citizen scientists. They learn science while gathering real data that’s useful to practicing scientists. The International Award springs from the U.K.’s 60-year-old Duke of Edinburgh Award, which challenges young people to pursue diverse long-term objectives that are physical, mental, and partly outdoors. We’ve consolidated these programs into the “Alpine Institute” so we could add even more layers, all of them focused on developing in our students a deep understanding and passion for the mountain landscape and culture of our Swiss home. In this process, we’re helping uprooted children grow into grounded adults.
Educationally, we’re inspired by Kurt Hahn, the German founder of Outward Bound and the International Award, who said, “It is the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible denial, and above all, compassion.” It’s hard not to see the link here to LAS’s mission of “developing innovative, compassionate, and responsible citizens of the world.”
In the following pages several teachers will talk about their own classes and how they’re embracing principles we’re developing together, under the Alpine Institute’s banner. If the connections feel loose, that’s because they are and always will be. For example, one of our strongest common themes is citizen science, of which you’ll learn more shortly. The key to integrating citizen science into education is building connections to the curriculum. It will be the same with all of the Alpine Institute’s work: finding connections to classroom requirements and assisting teachers to use local and outdoor examples whenever they can.