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School bus driving through sagebrush field

A bright yellow prairie schooner of a school bus bounces over the uneven terrain of the sagebrush steppe and comes to a halt. The door squeaks open, and out flock 180 Heritage Middle School seventh graders, their colorful clothes like exotic plumage against the dry landscape. From a field science station, Boise State alum Zoe Tinkle Duran (MS, biology, 2016) waves them in.

For nearly seven years, she has introduced Idaho youth to the real story of the sagebrush steppe and all of its levels. The sagebrush steppe is the biggest rangeland ecosystem in the country. It stretches across 165 million acres of the American West, including Idaho.

“When I was in graduate school at Boise State, my major advisor, Dr. Jen Forbey, and I started the Adopt-a-Scientist outreach program in 2015,” Tinkle Duran explained. “I serve as the ‘adopted’ scientist, where I do an in-class visit with the students to introduce myself and introduce the sagebrush steppe ecosystem.”

Zoe Tinkle Duran
Zoe Tinkle Duran
MS, Biology, 2016

In the field, Tinkle Duran and Forbey combine forces with Boise State experts, the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission, the Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Army National Guard, and University of Idaho. Together, these educators show students to see a landscape through many different lenses.

From underground soil biology and chemistry, to the herbivores that eat the sagebrush, to the carnivores that prey on them, all the way to the drones-in-the-sky view, this team shows how science answers questions and reveals patterns and truths about the ecosystem we often take for granted.

Through this experience, students realize that they can be scientists, too.

“What always sticks out in my mind is how the students view ‘science’ and ‘scientists’ before and after the field trip experience,” Tinkle Duran said. “Before the experience, we ask the students ‘what is a scientist to you?’ and, invariably they will respond with: ‘white lab coat!’ ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy!’ After the field trip and the students meeting the diversity of representation of scientists there, they come away from the experience with a completely different response: ‘I could be a scientist!’”

As the former natural resource specialist for the Idaho Army National Guard, and now the lead biologist and owner of Duran Environmental Consulting LLC., Tinkle Duran is dedicated to enlightening people about the value of the ecosystem.

“We like to be able to bring them to a real study site that real Idaho scientists are participating in to show them that they can be involved in it themselves,” Tinkle Duran said. “And on a more personal note, I feel like bringing the students into my world – the world of field research and the sagebrush steppe – gives me a renewed appreciation for what I do and how fortunate I am to do what I love for a living.”

The students’ visit took place on Bureau of Land Management land south of Boise in the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area and Idaho National Guard Orchard Combat Training Center. Support for the Adopt-a-Scientist program comes from a National Science Foundation EPSCoR grant through Forbey’s lab and from the Idaho Army National Guard Environmental Management Office, in addition to the generous donation of time by the many professionals who participate in the field trip.

—By Brianne Phillips, Photos by John Kelly, Video by Matt Crook