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An aerial view of CWC's Alpine Science Institute

The section of Central Wyoming College’s campus, housed in the foothills of the Wind River Mountain Range, merged with the outdoor education, anthropology and expedition science programs to become the Alpine Science Institute on October 18, 2018. Formerly called the Sinks Canyon Center, the ASI now includes the physical campus, and instruction and research efforts.

The Interdisciplinary Climate Change Expedition inspired CWC faculty members to streamline the subsets of ASI into a unified program in 2014. This annual wilderness expedition allows students to simultaneously conduct research while exercising their wilderness travel and risk management abilities.

Jacki Klancher, professor of  environmental health, said seeing the immediate success of ICCE led CWC faculty to the realization that the program was more than a “Think Tank.”  

She and the program’s ASI campus director, Joanne Slingerland, hosted a brainstorming session with several other CWC contributors to strategize the future of ASI. They used the success of ICCE as a point of inspiration to merge the classroom and the physical site, which was once known as CWC’s Sinks Canyon Center. 

“We saw the success of ICCE and we thought we could do more,” Klancher said. “We wanted to house the program in a specific location.”

Because they already had a site, she said the name change just made sense. 

“We’re located in the field,” Klancher said. “So we decided to merge the physical location with a field-based education center.” 

As part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the campus offers a biodiverse climate that is ideal for ecological, environmental and geospatial science studies. That is exactly how CWC’s students use the area. They conduct glaciology, hydrology and archaeology-based high elevation studies. They also measure air quality and test snow and surface water for the presence of microplastics and black carbon particulate matter. Klancher said she and the rest of the CWC faculty at ASI try to make the program’s classes as relevant as possible.

We are lucky to have a field site that is close to town and is equipped with housing,” Klancher said. “It is an outdoor space and classroom that seamlessly merge together. ”

Todd Guenther, professor of anthropology, expects the name change to impact the program’s outreach efforts.

“I think it will be fantastic,” he said. “Changing the name will allow us to better market what we do and recruit students from around the nation and around the world.”

As the only faculty member who works solely on the ASI campus, Darran Wells, professor of outdoor education and leadership, teaches traditional classroom-based outdoor education and hiking, rafting and skiing fieldwork courses. Wells said changing the name of the Sinks Canyon Center feels like a more accurate representation of the hands-on component of his program.

“Instead of being named after our location, we’re named for what we do,” he said.

Wells said the name change was effective from a practical standpoint as well, because people who saw the original Sinks Canyon Center sign often mistook the turnoff for the entrance to the state park. 

The original entrance to the center was a quarter-mile dirt road that CWC shared with private landowners. The ASI staff recently received approval and intend to have their own grand entrance and Alpine Science Institute sign completed this summer.

“There has been some talk about having a grand opening at that time,” Wells said. “But we haven’t decided on the details yet.”

Like Klancher, Guenther and Wells, CWC biology student Tawna Herrera thinks the changes will make the program’s intention clearer for prospective students.

“The Alpine Science Institute sounds like it is more focused towards science,” she said. “If that is what you focus on, then you will draw more scientific-based people to your program.”

Herrera originally attended Northwest College, but got involved with CWC after she met Klancher at an IDEA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) conference. After traveling with the ASI team to Africa, Herrera graduated this May and will continue her studies.

“My plan is to transfer to a four-year institution and continue with a bachelor’s degree in biology,” she said. “After, I would like to join the Peace Corps and help undeveloped countries.”

Herrera said her ultimate plan is to study graduate-level molecular biology, bioinformatics and Spanish. Like Herrera, many of the students who earn ASI-related degrees pursue further education. 

“Many go on to four-year programs to pursue higher degrees in archaeology, outdoor education and leadership, or environmental systems science,” Klancher said.

CWC is also exploring the opportunity of adding an area of emphasis in outdoor leadership to the four-year Bachelor of Applied Science program that will create more opportunities for students who graduate from two-year programs at CWC.

Klancher also said students who attend CWC with the intent to gain immediate employment are able to gain the skills required for positions with the US Forest Service, outdoor education and leadership, and in archaeology through the ASI. 

Regardless of students’ plans after CWC, hands-on learning plays a key role in their experiences. For ICCE, which continues to have as large of an impact CWC students as it did in 2014, participants get to choose between glacio-hydrology and environmental archaeology studies.

“Those two arms of ICCE really give the program broad appeal,” Klancher said. “Students who aren’t typically as interested in one area still find something they want to do.” 

The archaeology branch of ICCE is overseen by Guenther, who said the fieldwork has turned up surprising results.

“The discoveries the CWC field team have been making are groundbreaking,” he said. “The evidence they’ve found of human interaction with the environment from the Paleoindian Period at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age (around 13,000 years) ago has attracted international attention.”

Both avenues illustrate how the ASI goes beyond the classroom to create transformative scientific, environmental and outdoor leaders.

“It has been exceptionally powerful in engaging students in experiential learning,” Klancher said. “ICCE has served as such a strong catalyst for building confidence in the sciences”

In addition to allowing students to venture around the ASI campus and across the state of Wyoming, the expedition has gone as far as East Africa. In January 2020, CWC partnered with the University of Wyoming and NOLS to send two students to Tanzania. There, they collected soil samples to assess bacterial life across various altitudinal zones on Mount Kilimanjaro. Herrera was one of the two students to make the trip. She said both the cultural and scientific components of the expedition were life changing. 

“The course included classes that covered the Maasai culture and language, scientific article discussions, preparation for the backpacking hikes ahead and field science, safety, central dogma of DNA replication, soil ecology, domains and phylogeny, and scientific oral presentations that concluded our backpacking adventures,” she said. 

In addition to mastering basic skills like setting up a tent, lighting a stove, reading a map and practicing self-care in the wilderness, she also practiced the Kiswahili language, went on long hikes and learned to make East African chai. Herrera said one of her favorite parts of the trip was creating a lifelong family. 

“I learned to depend on others,” she said. “I am a very independent person and I learned that mental strength is just as important as physical strength.” 

Outside of ICCE, ASI offers student’s additional opportunities to connect the location to classroom studies. Klancher said all of these projects involve interdepartmental or interorganizational partnerships and thanks to CWC’s efforts to engage students from across the state, ASI’s primary funding sources are EPSCoR, NASA and COWYAMP which consider CWC a leadership college.

“We are well sought out as a community college partner,” Klancher said. 

While ASI has the capacity to host up to 40 students, it is currently not at capacity. Klancher said they are looking forward to several new starts in the next semester.

“It’s an opportunity outdoor educators or people who enjoy the outdoors would kill to have,” she said. “These are incredible experiential learning-based opportunities.”