Wasatch Mountain Inst.’s Backcountry Film Fest connects all ages to the wonder of the outdoors

SUMMIT COUNTY, Utah – The Wasatch Mountain Institute (WMI) is on a mission to connect children, families, and communities to the wonder, recreational, and educational opportunities of the Wasatch Mountains. The nonprofit, launched in 2019, teaches place-based academic field trips and hosts regular community events at Jordanelle State Park’s Rock Cliff Nature Center.

WMI’s upcoming event, the Backcountry Film Festival 2022, is a collaboration with Winter Wildlands Alliance and Park City Film. The film festival is on Thursday, November 10, at the Jim Santy Auditorium, and is WMI’s second year hosting the festival (last year, it was virtual).

Collaborating with Winter Wildlands Alliance and hosting the film enhances WMI’s mission to connect people to the wonder of the outdoors.

WMI’s Place-based Learning in Action – photo: Courtesy of Wasatch Mountain Institute

“The Backcountry Film Festival features cinematic stories of outdoor stewardship, grassroots policy and advocacy work, backcountry adventure, and snow cinema by human-powered advocates, athletes, brands, activists, adventurers, and outdoor enthusiasts,” explains Lara Chho, the outreach coordinator at WMI. “These stories resonate deeply with our mission to provide powerful hands-on learning opportunities for students, families, and communities in the Wasatch Mountains. We all recognize how central our winters and our snowpack are to the health and vitality of our community on all levels.”

Chho encourages people interested in attending the event to buy tickets online ahead of time because they anticipate selling out. “We invite folks to come early- we will be staffing information tables from 6 p.m. … and every ticket holder will have an opportunity to win any number of awesome prizes donated by our sponsors,” she says.

The Backcountry Film Festival is one of many avenues that help WMI achieve its core value of providing children with opportunities to learn in nature. Interestingly, WMI’s vision for Utah students started in Wyoming. Chho describes the inspiration saying, “WMI was formed in 2019 when a group of educators and alumni from Teton Science Schools recognized a need for place-based education in the Wasatch Mountains.”

Wasatch Mountain Institute Place Based Learning – photo: courtesy Wasatch Mountain Institute

That is why during its three plus years as a nonprofit, WMI’s played an active role in the Utah Every Kid Outdoor Initiative (EKO), run by the Utah Division of Recreation. “WMI has been a key stakeholder on the EKO committee since 2019, helping to implement state-wide opportunities to make access to outdoor recreation accessible to all families,” Chho says.

Despite being young, the nonprofit has already educated thousands of children and visitors at the Rock Cliff Nature Center campus. “In 2022 alone, we have engaged 1,156 students in hands-on outdoor learning opportunities, welcomed over 1,143 visitors to the newly reopened Rock Cliff Nature Center, and offered free monthly programs to over 87 local residents,” Chho exclaims. “Our goal in due time is to expand our offerings to other campuses where we will be able to reach a wider audience and offer expanded programming such as overnight programs where students can experience things like sleeping in a tent and stargazing.”

Through its involvement with the Utah Division of Recreation and the EKO movement, the learning opportunities WMI provides meet Utah’s elementary education curriculum. “Our day program curriculum meets core curriculum science SEED and literacy goals in a place-based outdoor classroom,” Chho explains. “At our Rock Cliff campus situated where the upper Provo River meets the Jordanelle reservoir, we have an opportunity to focus on watershed education. Our spring and fall programs allow 6th graders to enjoy various hands-on activities such as water quality sampling, macro-invertebrate identification, and watershed mapping.”

WMI also partners with Winter Wildlands Alliance to educate Utah’s 5th graders about one of the region’s key concerns, snow. “In our 5th grade Snow School curriculum, students learn how to evaluate snow structure and depth, as well as gain an understanding of the fundamental role mountain snowpack plays in our watershed and water cycle,” Chho describes.

WMI postponed launching its overnight programs with the onset of the global pandemic. However, they are now booking overnight opportunities for the spring of 2023. Educators or parents who want their students or children to have the chance to learn at the Red Cliff Nature Center can contact WMI. “Our school programs are typically offered through partnering with school districts. We encourage interested parties to reach out to Tim Grayson, our Program Director,” Chho says.

Since WMI’s inception, they’ve rallied around, making it easy to get outside. Part of that mission involves hiring educators like Chho, who is thrilled to be there. “As a field instructor, I love engaging with the natural curiosity of young learners, as well as the many ‘teachable moments that arise in an outdoor classroom. When a great blue heron or bald eagle flies over us, or a student notices a particular type of dragonfly, it is a joy to share that moment of awe and appreciation with the students,” she states. “As a Nature Center naturalist, I love interacting with visitors and exploring ways to offer meaningful outdoor experiences to local residents through our monthly community events.”

Chho encourages people interested in getting involved to attend WMI events, like the Backcountry Film Festival, or check out the happenings at the Rock Cliff Nature Center. “In partnership with Jordanelle State Park, we offer regular community events at our Rock Cliff campus,” she says. “November, we are hosting a volunteer clean-up, and December is a ‘Stories around the Campfire’ event featuring acclaimed Utah authors Darren Parry and Nan Seymour.”

Charitable contributions are always appreciated, says Chho. “As a 5013c nonprofit, we rely heavily on community support, and every donation makes a difference!”

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