By Joseph T. O’Connor ExploreBigSky.com Editor
BIG SKY – A beaker labeled “pure snow” sits in the sink on the long wall of Paul Swenson’s classroom at Lone Peak High School. At the front of the room, under the periodic table and a cast of a grizzly paw print, the dry erase board reads Molarity = moles/(1 liter). Beneath is scrawled, “Come up with a procedure.”
Swenson, 49, a math and science teacher at LPHS, instills in his students the importance of procedure; and not just as it relates to the world of chemistry. He says interdisciplinary education is key to understanding ideas.
“Our philosophy [at LPHS] is you don’t just do science in chemistry class; you don’t just write in English class; you don’t just do math in geometry class,” says Swenson, who helped design the high school curriculum before the doors opened in 2009. “There are overarching themes, and we want students to understand five or six points of view for any [one subject].”
Swenson grew up in the Gallatin Valley with teaching in his blood – his father was the head of the physics department at Montana State University for 20 years. His grandfather was principal of Hawthorn Elementary School in Bozeman.
But no one knew Swenson would follow suit in academia. He’s an avid outdoorsman, something also instilled in him at a young age while spending summers at a cabin across from the Almart Lodge, now the Cinnamon Lodge, learning lessons only the outdoors can teach.
“The day after school would get out [for summer], my mother would take my two sisters and me up here,” said Swenson, who now has three children of his own. “By the fourth or fifth grade, I’d pack a lunch and say, ‘See you tonight, Mom.’”
Swenson’s parents, Robert and Janet, nurtured this outdoor interest.
“We gave each of the kids Indian names,” said Robert, who retired from MSU in 1998 and now spends winters with Janet in Tuscon, Ariz. Paul’s was Croaking Toad.
“He’d go to a nearby pond and bring these [toads] back and play with them all day,” said the elder Swenson. “Then he’d take them back in the evening.”
In 1986, Swenson graduated from MSU with bachelor’s degrees in physics and geophysics. That fall he received his acceptance notice from Stanford University, where he would earn a master’s in geophysics. He hadn’t expected to get in.
“My favorite professor at MSU told me to apply,” Swenson said. “I knew if I didn’t get in I’d get to be a bum for a while, so when I was accepted, I was like, ‘damn.’”
Swenson moved to California’s Bay Area, earning his Master of Science in 1988, but he knew the city wasn’t for him. He returned to Montana and earned a teaching certificate from MSU after learning Big Sky was planning a high school.
“I’d rather spend my time fishing and hiking than going to concerts and riding the train,” he said.
When he’s not spending time outdoors with his family, Swenson indulges in what his father calls his “secret life” – music and art.
He plays mandolin in the Fish Camp Band, a two-piece ensemble with friend John Gospodarek, of West Yellowstone, and they also play in the West-based Kennedy and the Assassins. As an avid painter, Swenson uses nature as his muse.
Teaching has been a natural fit. In 2011 Swenson won the Boyne Excellence in Achievement award for his work with students outside the LPHS classroom.
Together with University of Montana geography professor Rick Graetz, Swenson is connecting LPHS and UM students, encouraging to submit work for publication in university magazines.
Graetz says LPHS is successful in part because of the efforts of “Professor Paul” – his nickname for Swenson – and that he could teach at any college in the country.
“He’s passionate about science and believes [in] the same stuff I do,” said Graetz, who lives in Big Sky part-time. “I couldn’t possibly do without people like Paul in the field. The kids and the school are lucky to have a guy of his caliber in the school system.”
The two are also collaborating on a weeklong student expedition to Glacier National Park in spring, where kids will study the ecology, geology and geography in northern Montana and how the area relates to the Yellowstone region. Swenson feels this format will help his students develop a procedure they’ll be able to use throughout their lives.
“When they’re on top of Lone Peak, I want them to know about what they’re looking at – not just white triangles called mountains.”