The 21st Century Gulch: Why we’re (still) an unplugged program

Dec 11, 2019

About a year ago, one of our staff was sitting in a STEM-NM meeting in Albuquerque, where science, technology, engineering, and math programs had gathered to share what we do, foster connections, and learn about innovation. In the conversation, our staff mentioned that we were an entirely unplugged program. No phones, no screens, no wifi, nothing that needs a plug or a cord to operate on our programs. Another program director laughed, and then said we would never stay relevant in the 21st century–Their program was proud to be an innovator by putting satellite Wi-Fi on their busses so that students could access web resources and “do more learning” on the way to and from the Magdalena Ridge Observatory. Here’s a brief explanation for why when we head to the MRO, we’ll never have trekkers staring at screens.

Boredom: It’s good for you

So often these days, even when we’re standing in line for a coffee, riding public transportation, even sitting by yourself at a restaurant, we pull out our smartphones and rob ourselves of the opportunity to feel bored. It’s easy. You don’t need to make eye contact. You don’t have to think. Swipe, swipe, swipe. Scrolling through the minute-by-minute “newsfeeds,” getting the latest updates on “friends.” But have you ever noticed that you have your best, your most creative, your most innovative ideas when you’re on a long car ride or taking the dog for a walk or standing in the shower? That’s because when our brains can be on autopilot–we have the cognitive time and space to let our minds wander and that often produces great ideas. Screens rob all of us of that ability–We’re so “connected” and “engaged” that we stop being creative and developing our own ideas.

On our treks, trekkers often have long car rides or “down time” while dinner is being made or time in camp when it’s pouring rain. Time when we, as educators, might hear the “I’m bored” line. But a funny thing happens. In years of working at the Gulch, not many of us can think of a time when we’ve heard that line. Our trekkers are incredible. They explore. They talk. They play games, notice the world around them, create art, nap, play music, and write letters. They throw rocks (hopefully not at each other), build shelters, create imaginative worlds. One time, we watched trekkers “invent” the game of Bocce with pebbles. When you allow the time and space for “boredom,” you are giving them the gift of opportunity–To create, to think, to rest. But, if we let our students have screens, cell phones, etc., how many of them do you think would simply be glued to those devices during “down time?”

Further Reading/Viewing:



Thinking: How and Why

When was the last time you whipped out your phone to settle a question?  How to spell the word “minuscule?” What river is longer, the Congo or the Nile? Is that a cottonwood leaf or an elm? What’s the capital city of South Dakota? Most peoples’ reaction today is to pull out a phone or computer and Google the answer. But when we do that, when we answer questions immediately and definitely, we crush creative processes, logical thinking, group conversation, divergent thinking. Maybe we can work together to figure out how to spell that word. Maybe we can look at a map of Africa to solve the river question. Maybe we can find another clue to what type of tree we’re looking at. Maybe we can (as a group) remember that silly song about state capitals. The human brain is a place of connections–It’s what our brains are “designed” to do, in many ways. When we immediately “answer” questions, we stop the connective processes that our brains would naturally do and lose the opportunity to think critically and engage with difficult questions.   

Further Reading/Viewing:


iGen by Jean Twenge

Sometimes Wonder is Better

A few years back, one of our educators was out at Base Camp under an incredible night sky, pointing out constellations she knew to a group of students from inner city Albuquerque. Many of them had never seen a night sky like the incredible nights we get in Thoreau, and some may have never seen the stars. After campfire, one of the teachers came over and asked why we didn’t use a star gazing app. These little pieces of software, often available for free, are incredibly powerful tools. Using GPS and cameras, you can point your phone at the sky and it will identify stars, constellations, planets–It even has various stories about them available instantly in the palm of your hand. So, why don’t we use them to educate our groups? Because we believe that sometimes, wonder is better. Sometimes just staring up at the stars, wondering why and how and who we are is an incredibly powerful experience, and oftentimes, we think it’s exactly what youth need.

What’s really amazing is that trekkers agree. When we lead school programs that are between two and five days, regularly when we ask students at a final campfire what they’re taking away from the trip we hear answers like “I didn’t know being away from my phone was so fun” or “The world is so cool around us, I’m so glad that we didn’t all have our phones” or even “I didn’t know this other student, and now I know who they are and they’re cool.” All of those things happen because students specifically don’t know things and they’re forced to be curious, to wonder about them.

Further Reading/Viewing:





The World is Flat

On a school trek two years ago, on a van ride back to Mandela International Magnet School, a Gulch staff person posed the following to the middle schoolers he was riding with: “The world is flat.” The students replied “No it’s not, it’s round. Everybody knows that.” To which, our educator replied “Prove it.” And what followed was a 45 minute conversation about geography, astronomy, angles, the sun, the earth, latitude, longitude, Mercator projections, and ultimately, how we know what we know. In the conversation, students relied on knowledge they had gained from the internet, from videos, from photographs, from books. And in the end, all of the students agreed that we could fake each and every one of those forms of media. But we also were able to engage in a conversation about information, knowledge, peer-review of science, replicable results, and ultimately, truth and where it comes from. We believe that these conversations are important, that challenging students to believe in themselves and their knowledge is essential, and that screens and tech have the potential to create an “easy out” for students.

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Social media connects the world, right? You can have friends globally, not just locally. Countries, communities, the whole world, can all communicate immediately. We all have friends and families spread around the country and around the world–social media is a very powerful tool to communicate, to share things, to keep in touch. There are video chats, text messages, Instagrams, Facebooks, Tik Tok, and the list of platforms continues to grow. And at this point, many of us are accustomed to relying on phones and social media for maintaining relationships and community.


There is something in the power of eye contact, or physical touch, or engaging in a challenging task in the same place at the same time. Being without a screen forces you to stay present, stay engaged, and be an active member of the community. Conflict happens, dishes are washed, joys are shared, and memories created–all without the pressure of social media, without the barrier of a screen between each of us. There is no putting in your headphones and checking out. Your attention is automatically on the relationships with the people around you. There is a wide body of research that supports the idea that screens impact relationships (link). We believe that while technology has the power to connect communities and individuals should take advantage of the opportunities for connection that it provides, there is something lost when that takes the place of face to face communication. 

Further Reading/Viewing:





Screens and Mental Health

Mental health challenges in youth have been on the rise dramatically for the past ten years. There are likely many reasons for this increase, but it’s hard to imagine that screens are not one of them. One of the major factors in several mental health disorders is empathy. Since many kids spend time interacting with screens more than each other, it becomes hard for the to read non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language. When you’re with the same small group of people for an extended period of time without the distraction of screens, you can get to know them on a deeper level, learn to read them, and hear their perspective. Additionally, screens and screen usage has been deeply linked to happiness, addiction, anxiety, ADD/ADHD,  and many other mental health challenges that young people are facing today. Being at the Gulch gives kids a chance to unplug and to “detox” from the screen based world we live in today–Giving their brains a much needed rest.

Further Reading/Viewing:










Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras

Independence: A life skill

When is the last time you used a paper map? The last time you had to look at each and every storefront walking down a main street to find a shop?  The last time you took out a piece of paper, sat down, and wrote a letter to someone? These are all valuable life skills and important experiences as we transition from adolescence to adulthood. All are marks of independence, of figuring things out on your own, of “adulting” as it’s called these days. They’re also all things that we have our summer trekkers do. During town stops, many trekkers are able to explore small towns across the Southwest, whether Silver City, NM, or Moab, UT, and discover these places in small groups (usually four or five trekkers). And no, they don’t have a cell phone to call us or look up where to get a burger. This trust and independence that we give kids is massive in terms of personal growth and development. Our staff are (of course) close by, boundaries are set, and group trust is established before we do a “town stop.” And also, we regularly hear from kids and parents that the experience is transformative due to the independence we grant them.

Further Reading/Viewing:


Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras

iGen by Jean Twenge



Matt and Tori

Matt and Tori are our Program Directors. Tori manages our open enrollment programs while Matt manages our contract courses. While they sometimes have disagreements about which vehicles can go out on which program, they agree that being unplugged is a core piece of the Gulch experience. These days when they’re not in the office, they’re busy preparing for the birth of their first child!