When Susy Ellison accepted a position as science teacher at Yampah Mountain High School in 1997, “El Niño” was becoming a household term. That summer, Ellison was rained out of her planned trek along the Rocky Mountain Trail, giving her a concrete example to share with her students of how small changes can have large impacts.
Ellison, who is retiring after this school year, has spent the 17 years since then helping the alternative high school grow and flourish. She strives to teach her students environmental literacy, which she defines as “understanding your place on the planet and your impact.”
She has a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology, and spent several years working for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. She briefly considered doing scientific research of her own, but worried that her work would “sit on a shelf and no one would use it.”
Instead, she opted to pick up a teaching certification from Fort Lewis College in Durango, and later a master’s in education from Colorado State University. She spent three years teaching fifth grade in Carbondale before making the move to Yampah.
Teaching, and particularly alternative education, has turned out to be the perfect outlet for her love of science.
“I make people think,” Ellison said.
At Yampah, she teaches all levels and abilities. Many students who have struggled in traditional public school get a second chance under her tutelage.
“These kids need an education, too,” she said.
In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Environmental Education Foundation recognized Ellison’s work by presenting her with the Richard C. Bartlett Award for leadership in environmental education.
Her hands-on scientific background shows through in her strong belief in applying knowledge in the process of teaching it.
“Facts are great,” she observed, “but what’s the point if you’re not going to apply it?” Students have helped install solar power units on top of the school, grown vegetables in a greenhouse and constructed a straw bale classroom.
Ellison has done a fair amount of hands-on work herself, having participated in several National Science Foundation expeditions in Alaska, as well as one trip to Antarctica.
She admits it will be hard to leave.
“You could stay forever,” she said, “It’s been really great. It’s an incredibly committed, talented group of educators.”
It’s a mark of the staff’s dedication that Yampah has retained its teachers for so long. Two staff members have been around since the school was founded in 1989, and three share a 17-year run. Still, Ellison feels that it’s time to move on to something else. Ellison hopes to find a part-time educational position dealing in “carbon literacy” — raising awareness of carbon costs and the impacts of everyday activities.
In the meantime, she’s looking forward to another chance at the Rocky Mountain Trail, even as another El Niño summer seems to be building in the Pacific.
“Teachers are great at retiring, ‘cause we practice it every summer,” she said. “I’ve always excelled at summer vacation, but we’ll see how it goes extending it into the fall.”