KALISPELL - They call it "learning gone wild," and if you could see the muddy boots and sunburned faces and briar-scratched hands, well, you'd know exactly what they were talking about.
"It's outdoor science education in one of the wildest places in the country," said Joyce Baltz, "and the kids love it."
Not just the kids. The Glacier Institute - where Baltz is executive director - puts about 1,000 kids into the woods every year, but it also takes 700 or so adults into the wild.
This year, the institute turns 25 years old, a silver anniversary celebrated on rivers, trails and peaks, with microscopes and magnifying lenses and hip-boot waders.
Jack Potter, chief of science and natural resources at Glacier National Park, calls the nonprofit Institute "a tremendously valuable partner," providing the kind of in-depth understanding Glacier's rangers just don't have time for.
"The quality of education they provide is very high," Potter said. "Basically, they're teaching good science in the field, and they make it fun for people to explore the park at a deeper level."
Because make no mistake - deep science is fun. Just ask the kid up to his elbows in the creek, catching water bugs. Or the little girl stomping through last summer's burn, looking for mushrooms. Or the gaggle of grownups sorting through the underbrush, on the hunt for the elusive orchid.
Owls, wolves, mountain lions. Wildflowers and wilderness skills, glaciers and grizzlies. Learn these and you learn the landscape. Snorkel down McDonald Creek, discovering the ecology of an underwater world, or poke around a beaver's backyard, studying "the best dam habitat builders around."
This isn't advocacy. They'll teach you about the life cycle of a larch tree, or of a wolf, but it's up to you, now that you've learned more about it, to decide whether it should be cut down, or hunted, or not.
Since the first course was offered in 1984, more than 20,000 kids have spent countless days in the field, putting together a picture of the wide, wild world. But in the beginning, Baltz said, kids weren't even on the roster.
The first programs - nine classes with 84 students - were geared toward adults, Baltz said; "basic Glacier Park science stuff; bears, naturalist hikes, that sort of thing."
The curriculum was the brainchild of two local science educators, geologist Lex Blood and biologist Ursula Mattson. They wanted to get people out, Baltz said, and wanted to get people learning about the natural world. With so much public land in the region, they figured, it'd be a good thing for people to understand a bit of natural history.
Glacier Park was the obvious central classroom, and they leased space for field camp at the old Civilian Conservation Corps barracks inside the park.
"We were one of the first to do this kind of thing," Baltz said. "We were the pathfinders."
Today, nearly 20 nonprofit educational outfits operate in partnership with national parks across the country, but 25 years ago the Glacier Institute was leading the way.
Baltz calls the notion of hands-on science education in the field "incredibly visionary," and it quickly attracted both teachers and students.
Blood taught some classes, and so did Mattson, and they soon brought in other experts, too, people such as Missoula-based bear biologist Chuck Jonkel.
"It really started to work," Baltz said, and so in 1989 the Institute expanded, taking a lease on the U.S. Forest Service's historic Big Creek Ranger Station. Today, it's known as the Big Creek Outdoor Education Center, and it's the anchor for the Institute's youth programs.
"The elementary school students have really become the heart of the Institute," Baltz said. "A lot of children don't learn that well in a traditional classroom, but if they can get their hands in the mud, that's the stuff they remember."
The curriculum meets Montana state standards for science and math, and so teachers can take the outdoor work indoors, using the field days as a springboard for more projects.
"I think kids need science," Baltz said. "This teaches them that learning is fun, and science is cool."
Plus, they get to sleep in a bunkhouse and eat spaghetti and sit around campfires with friends. It is, Baltz said, continually surprising how many local kids have never done that stuff. Year in and year out, when she asks the children how many have never been to Glacier Park before, a steady 50 percent raise their hands.
Today, Glacier Institute offers some 65 adult courses, and 15 student curriculums, and hires 40 or so expert instructors to bolster the dozen full-timers who work at Big Creek and Field Camp.
The whole operation comes with a $330,000 annual budget, "and fortunately, the program has never paid for itself."
Fortunately because that means the whole community has become involved, pitching in with fundraisers and in-kind assistance. Tuition brings in about $230,000 a year, she said, but they rely on donations and good will for the remaining $100,000.
Much of that goes to scholarships, because "nobody's left behind. We offer scholarships because often it's the kids who most need a program like this whose families can least afford it."
In this, the silver anniversary year, Baltz is throwing a celebratory shindig, which, of course, will double as a major fundraising event. A $75 ticket gets participants a dinner and drinks, and a cabaret performance and live music and even a musician.
Then there's the silent and live auctions, offering "all sorts of unique experiences." A golf excursion to Arizona, a seat at a Montana Grizzly game, with a brunch in the president's booth. A Red Bus ride through Glacier, or a park boat cruise for you and 40 of your closest friends.
Local artist and longtime Glacier Institute photography instructor Marshall Noice has put up an original painting, called "Bowman Lake Shores," made just for the gala.
If all goes well, Baltz said, the celebration will be more a kickoff for the next 25 years than a look back at the previous 25.
"Outdoor science education is more important now than ever," Baltz said. "In this age of technology, kids just don't get outdoors enough."
That stream full of frogs and trout must now compete with cell phones and video games and the Internet, which does not bode well for the next generation of land stewards.
"This country, this world, needs scientists who understand natural systems," she said, "and we foster that love of learning from a very early age, right on through adulthood."
Because people are never too old, nor too young, she said, for the muddy-booted wonders of learning gone wild.
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at (406) 862-0324, or mjamison @missoulian.com.