The Science of Exploring


Szydlowski“Only about 30 percent of our students go to state parks with their family even though Rock Bridge State Park is right here in town,” declared Columbia Public Schools’ (CPS) K-12 Science Coordinator Mike Szydlowski. “We don’t want outside to be an exceptional thing. We want it to be normal,” he emphasized.

Now, every CPS middle school student has the opportunity to go on a two-day, one-night camping trip. “For 70 percent of the students, this is their first overnight camping trip,” Mike said. The students hike, fish, learn archery, engage in team building activities, and even remove invasive honeysuckle plants.

“We have removed a million honeysuckle plants in Columbia, and we have about 100 million to go.” Mike has declared war on the invasive plant. But his big picture is beyond honeysuckle. He wants to get everyone camping, and he wants all students to experience place-based science learning.

Rockbridge High School teacher Kerri Graham explained the importance of learning science outdoors. “We learn best by observing, questioning and doing science. Outdoor classrooms allow kids to experience science rather than hear about science. These opportunities immediately increase relevance and engagement, and ultimately, help our kids develop a sense of wonder and responsibility for our world.”

Place-Based Education
Mike’s sense of wonder and responsibility stems from a love of nature acquired playing in backyard woods while growing up. “And my parents took me camping all of the time. I grew up canoeing on the Current River and Black River. I grew up thinking that was normal. I was a huge weather nut. I loved storms,” Mike said.

His place-based educational philosophy was refined while studying science education at Mizzou, during a teaching stint at his high school alma mater Mehlville High School and his first science coordinator position at Rockwood School District. By the time he joined CPS in 2010, Mike saw his “job is to make learning opportunities available for students that teachers do not possibly have the time to coordinate. My job is to push teachers and make their jobs easier and more fun.” He sees science learning as embracing the nexus of environment, culture and business. “How do you work together to understand multiple sides and work together sustainably?”

CPS Students go to the Tetons
Impassioned that “kids need to get outside,” Mike directs a summer science learning adventure for 500 students, grades 6-12 every June. Divided into three groups, they board charter busses for a 24-hour bus ride to the Teton Science School in Wyoming for a week of outdoor, hands-on learning.

“On the Teton trip, our daughter has canoed, snowshoed, cross country skied, hiked, and photographed bears, moose, mountain goats and buffalo, among other wildlife. She has also learned about safety and surviving in the wild and in winter, about geology, geography, meteorology, biology — you name it. On top of that, she has made friends from all three high schools and has memories that will last a lifetime,” said Karlan Seville, CPS parent. The students also have a day off for a 13-hour tour of Yellowstone National Park.

Each week, 18 CPS teachers travel with the students to chaperone and to co-teach with the Teton Science School staff. “This summer will be my fourth trip… I have continued to chaperone, because the trip offers such an incredible opportunity for our kids. Students really do come back changed — in their self-confidence, friendships, leadership skills and love of the outdoors,” CPS teacher Joan Jouriles highlighted.

To attend, the students have to raise the money for their room, board and tuition. It costs $775, plus 5 hours of community service.  This year, CPS was able to provide some need-based scholarships, thanks to a Shelter Insurance donation of $4,000. “When 360 parents register their kids in the first 30 minutes of registration opening, that speaks volumes as to how important Mike Szydlowski and the Teton Trip is to Columbia Public Schools,” noted Seville. In fact, all 500 slots were filled in 8 hours. To watch for announcements about the 2018 summer Teton camp, please go to

Students Attend Leadership Camp
This February, 14 students traveled with Mike for a winter experience at the Teton Science School. All of the students had attended previous summer trips multiple times. The focus of the trip was “how to make a difference. How to make your voice heard. How to be an advocate. And how to work with and have empathy for people with different views,” Mike noted.

Activities included snowshoeing while studying snow layer science, a sleigh ride in the National Elk Refuge, and cross country skiing at Taggart Lake.

Meeting weekly throughout the fall, the students refined their science passions, and upon returning home from the trip, they are busy applying leadership skills by designing and implementing individual programs. Their projects include planting native species, caring for bees, being ambassadors for Missouri River Relief and upgrading CPS’s recycling.

“This recent winter trip to Wyoming has been my fourth time up there with CPS. Each trip up to Wyoming changed my perspective on life a little more than the last. You learn to appreciate things you don’t see at home,” said Elizabeth Musco, a student.

The leadership camp was a perspective-changing event for some students. “Participating in the trips to the Tetons has expanded my range of knowledge vastly. I learn/see things I would never get to experience in the classroom. It’s different learning about trees in a classroom through a textbook and learning about trees by hiking to see and discuss them in real life,” Musco added.

Did You Know Kids
Three years ago, Mike “noticed a need that our students were not able to read nonfiction well. They could not answer inference questions and could not express their opinion on what they read.” So, he started writing a Wednesday column for the Columbia Daily Tribune called “Did You Know Kids.”

Mike crafts the popular column to give the readers content area reading strategies, while integrating science concepts and applied math. “I work to make it interesting to kids as well as the senior citizens who follow the column,” Mike stated. In turn, “I learn about the community when I write articles, for example, when I wrote that ghosts were not scientifically proven, I got hammered,” he chuckled.

In addition to the weekly column, Mike will challenge your scientific thinking on Twitter @Szydlowskim. Also visit to discover what is new in science at CPS.

All Students Should Get Outside
Mike is working with teachers to bring place-based education to Columbia. “I would like science courses to continue working on being place-based, outdoor-based and experience-based. We strive to help every teacher who wants to take a field trip.”

“Our teachers go to Rockbridge State Park for geology, water quality and invasive species study. They go to Prairie Fork Conservation Area for forest, prairie and pond systems to learn about the ecosystem of each one. Some will go on camping trips… Some go to farms to learn about agriculture… We have to go and observe nature,” Mike said.

Mike is not trying to make all students scientists. He wants all students to think critically. “Anyone can write or say anything, but can you back that up? Can you repeat the study? Students need to be able to solve problems and do real science.”

Real science is hands-on, and getting outside is the best way to learn about our world. Mike is working hard to give that opportunity to all CPS students.

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