Last July, I visited the Keystone Science School in Colorado, joining educators from across the U.S. and Canada for a crash course on smarter science teaching. It was a wide-ranging workshop, but it still conveyed a cohesive theme: Teach kids to think like scientists, not just to learn what scientists think. That way, America might start raising more researchers and innovators, or at least fewer people who blindly trust or distrust science.

This push for critical thinking and self-reliance resonated with many KSS attendees, who have since relayed the school's lessons to countless students from California to Quebec. But just six months later, I and other alumni suddenly received an "urgent" SOS from KSS: Its 40-year-old parent organization, the Keystone Center, is facing "significant financial challenges," so KSS is now seeking self-reliance of its own, declaring itself an independent nonprofit and buying the land where its campus is built. Otherwise, the Keystone Center might have to sell or dismantle the school to pay its bills.

The only problem? Apparently that land and campus cost $2.5 million, which KSS must raise before Feb. 1 to meet a deadline set by the Keystone Center's Board of Trustees. The good news is that supporters have already donated more than $1.5 million toward the school's independence. But $1 million is still a lot of money to raise in one month — especially amid the post-Christmas generosity doldrums of January.

But if movies have taught us anything, it's that a bunch of earnest upstarts can save any school, library, rec center or dance hall if they just try hard enough (and maybe break into a musical montage or two.) And the folks at KSS seem to share that optimism, even if it is tempered by their attempts to express the urgency of the situation.

"Keystone Science School is embarking on a new opportunity and we need your help to make it succeed!" says an online invitation to join the Campaign for KSS. "As someone who has experienced the unique benefits of Keystone Science School's programs, you too understand the importance of preserving this wonderful place and the programs we have run for nearly 40 years. With this in mind, we ask urgently for your support."

But why is there so much urgency? In an email to MNN, KSS marketing director Robyn Brewer explains that it's simply a matter of the school's owner needing money fast. "The Keystone Center is striving to convert its assets, one of which is the Keystone Science School campus, to cash in order to meet its immediate financial obligations and set both organizations up for financial success," she writes.

Such a predicament might seem ripe for animosity between the two Keystones, but Brewer indicates no ill will. "Although the missions of Keystone Science School and the Keystone Center are complementary, they serve different markets and operate under different business models," she writes. "Independence will allow each organization to focus its resources solely on its mission, programs and long-term sustainability." Keystone Center founder Robert Craig seems to agree, saying in a recent statement that "I fully support this course of action as the best way to ensure that both the Keystone Center's work and the science school's excellent programs will survive and flourish."

KSS does have a lot of programs. The course I took last summer was one of many science-centric options, including camps and "adventure-based expeditions" for kids and teens; customized programs for school groups; educator workshops on issues like urban sustainability and climate change; and community programs ranging from birthday parties to wilderness first-aid classes. As for what all these programs can achieve, the Campaign for KSS lists the following big-picture benefits:

  • "Innovative science education for more than 5,000 youth from across the U.S. and beyond each year"
  • "Exciting, engaging, STEM-based science curricula for hundreds of teachers and thousands of students annually"
  • "Hundreds of magical transformations from ordinary summer camper to botanists, astronomers, historians, and super heroes"
  • "Essential leadership skills, respect for science and the environment, and a new generation of engaged, informed leaders"
To learn more about KSS, check out this blog post I wrote after returning from its "Key Issues" program in late July 2012. (Full disclosure: My trip was paid for by Georgia-Pacific, a sponsor of MNN. GP has supported KSS for more than a decade, and also helps send several science teachers there every year.) If you're interested in donating to the Campaign for KSS, you might want to read more about it here and here. And if you happen to be in Summit County, Colo., this weekend, you could also stop by a benefit concert on Saturday, Jan. 19, at the science school's campus.

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