Northern Wyoming Daily News - Serving the Big Horn Basin for over 100 years

By Karla Pomeroy

BIG HORN BASIN EDITION: Living for the ah-ha moments

WORLAND - Whether he is teaching, writing, taking photos or learning from his students, for Jeb Schenck, life is about the ah-ha moments.


June 22, 2018

Karla Pomeroy

Teacher, author and photographer Jeb Schenck stands besides some of his Shoshone photos he has taken, part of his "Chasing the Light" exhibit at the Washakie Museum.

WORLAND - Whether he is teaching, writing, taking photos or learning from his students, for Jeb Schenck, life is about the ah-ha moments.

Jeb was born and raised in Powell, Ohio, in what used to be a small, rural community, but is now a suburb of Columbus. He would come to Wyoming during the summers to visit his uncle who was a newspaper publisher in Lander. When it was time to select a college, he knew the University of Wyoming was the place for him, not only for the love of Wyoming, but also because of his desire to study geology and paleontology and UW's strong geology program.

However, as he began his studies during his sophomore year, he came to realize there was only about six jobs in paleontology in the entire country, but there were many more paleontology students, just at the University of Wyoming alone, much less across the entire country.

"I realized this was not a good job prospect," Schenck said, so he began considering other career options. The choice was easy with both of his parents being teachers so he switched his studies to education.

He has taught every level from first grade to doctoral programs. He has never taught kindergarten, he noted.

His first teaching position was at Encampment, where he taught math and science at the middle school and high school and later elementary physical education.

"I was actually fired from Encampment for all the things that later got me national recognition," Jeb said. Those things were "actual use of the sciences, can you explain it, do it. Can you use, not just theoretical."

He had science students redesign irrigation ditches to clean out gates more easily and designed a new bridge crossing a creek.

In 1974 he was hired at Hot Springs County High School in Thermopolis where he taught biology, general science, geology and he started the photography program. Just like at Encampment, Schenck's classes were hands-on with his geology classes spending two years mapping Hot Springs State Park, he noted.

He was also one of the first to teach a dual credit class, offering dual credit biology.

"We did lots of unique labs, field tested a lot of labs that no one else was doing," he said.

He semi retired from Thermopolis in 2012 but continued with the photography program part-time for two years. He continues to substitute teach on occasion at Thermopolis Middle School.

In teaching first through 12th grade, Schenck said he enjoyed most helping students "get the light bulbs to go off, the ah-ha moments."

He said, "Later on, as I started learning more about the brain, it was helping kids discover they could do far more than they could even dream; and the information would stick with them."


Schenck said his master's study was a pilot study on how the brain works, specifically measuring long-term memory. "I wanted to know what the heck was going on. Why memories really lasted while others were gone so quickly," he said. "What was still there a year after the lessons."

He said he started getting hints into memory when he would visit students five or 10 years after having them in class and some would be able to go into detail about some lesson that was taught. "The principles were still there so I was starting to see some common themes," Schenck said.

"I didn't know that what I was doing started the very first year of teaching until I got an email from one of my very first students in Encampment, who is now one of the top electrical engineers at Boeing, he contacted me and was telling me how stuff stuck," he said.

"So I started learning what was going on and it was a long upstream swim, because you're looking at memory after all these things happened to it. I had to learn all these different things how the memory was being made. I had to learn a lot of different areas because they are all interwoven," Schenck said.

He earned his doctorate in 1999 from the University of Wyoming.

Upon completion of his doctorate Schenck said he was recruited by several think tanks to continue his studies but they were all on either the West or East Coast and due to the air pollution he turned them down because his wife Gail is sensitive to air quality.

"Plus," he said, one of the universities would have meant a $10,000 pay cut due to salary and cost of living compared to pay and cost of living in Thermopolis. So in Thermopolis he stayed.

Currently he is the chief executive officer of KNOWA (Kognitive Neurosciences Over Wide Areas) Inc. and Syngnosis. He is an adjunct professor and teaches graduates course on neuroeducation (how the brain learns) with the University of Montana - Northern. He used to also be an outreach professor for the University of Wyoming for 18 years until the outreach program was eliminated.

Schenck said what he enjoys about teaching at the collegiate level is "it's really fun creating these situations where they have these ah-has and they start making the lineages. But I'm also always learning from my students."

He added, "It's fun working with the learners and opening up the world to them in ways they had never even suspected."

All of his studies havebrought him to the point where he has co-authored a book with his daughter, Jessica Cruickshank, that is about to be published on learning through experiences. Jessica completed her master's at Harvard, in a similar area as her father.

The book is tentatively titled "Beyond Ah-Ha: Creating Deeper Learning Through Experiences."

"What we found was, more important than even the lesson, how you create the emotional impact is important to the learner; not important to the organization, not important to the teacher, but important to the learner. Then how you build off that, and how you create a situation where you can use it, not just taking a test."

He said neurologically taking a test or assessment is the easy part. The hard part is what comes next, and that what makes it stick, he said.

"That is where you start getting them to think about what they've just done on a lot of different levels. Then they start applying it and trying their own explanations of it," Schenck said.

Syngnosis is the "easy name for the whole process - co-constructive development teaching theory," Schenck said.

He said the model he has developed on how the brain learns and on memory is used in part by Google, Pixar and the military. None of them use the complete model, the complete model is a nerve biological model. We're writing it in layman's terms but it's pretty wild. It allows people to do some really deep reflection. And the instructor is also learning even more right along with the student, whether the student is a kid or an adult," Schenck said, as his eyes light up in teaching this reporter just a small part of what he has learned over decades of teaching and learning, including a small portion of what he knows about fractals.

He said the brain grows much like a tree branches out, different parts of the brain grow at different times.

"The brain is not excused from different growth patterns just like the rest of the body," he said.

He said you can see someone's growth patterns. Where the patterns interact are the "ah-ha" moments.

Studying the growth patterns can provide enormous predictability, Schenck said. "It can tell you where the learner is, what level they can handle next, where your instructions should go."

He cautioned though, "You can't speed it up. No matter what they legislate, you can't legislate how the biology works."


In addition to teaching and studying how the brain works, Schenck is also a well-known photographer here and abroad. He began his study into photography at the age of 5 in the family darkroom, processing cattle pictures and crime pictures.

"Then I got curious some years later, somewhere in middle school. I wanted something that could shoot pictures of flowers, so I needed something better than the Kodak Instamatic. I got a camera I could vary the focus on. Then I discovered things were under exposed or over exposed and I got my first SLR (single lens ?? I didn't know what F stops were, what shutter speeds were but I discovered they affected exposure."

Schenck, who started the photography program at Hot Springs County High School, conducted numerous workshops for budding photographers, taught three college levels, was himself self-taught.

"I've had sufficient perseverance to figure out what I was doing wrong. Sometimes it took a while, it still takes a while when I'm working on new problems," Schenck said.

In a statement for the announcement of his Chasing the Light exhibit now at the Washakie Museum, Schenck said, ""I have an abiding passion for wild lands, ranging from the mountain landscapes with their fleeting light conditions, to the desert and dark forests.  I have sought to capture images of wilderness that can generate the drama of the sweeping landscapes or the quite moments that touch your soul. These images are the emotional thunderclaps of the mountains and glaciers, with their shadow and light and serenity of the forest of quiet desert...all while chasing the light."

He added, "This love developed, in part, from my years as a high altitude expedition climber and professional mountain guide. The images range from Patagonia, the Andes of Peru, Alaska, Yukon, Iceland, and the mountains and deserts of the West. Over 300 images have been published or used, some in major advertising campaigns for Ascent, Time, Newsweek, Money, Forbes, and a number of in-flight airline magazines, various outdoor catalogs and in hospitals and engineering and law firms."

Ever the teacher and the learner, Schenck field tested an early digital prototype camera for Canon on Everest. "My images were satellited back, and for two months were shown on CNN and ABC News," he said.

Schenck said he started his professional photography career taking rodeo photos inside the arena. He said he learned quick to tell which way the animals was going to spin. He joked he also learned to find out the bullfighters favorite drink to stay on his good side.

Schenck said in his interview with the Daily News, "Chasing the light is the classic problem. You can have a brilliant composition but if you haven't got the light it doesn't work. You're always looking for the right light conditions, but that also means you can see the potential in black and white as well."

Along with his many special projects for exhibits, Schenck does weddings and other specialty events. His current project is working with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe "the Shoshone Dance Project."

He said he has spent three years getting it off the ground, making connections with the tribe. "I'll be doing some very intense photography over the next couple of years. It's about, not just the regalia and the beauty of the dance it's about the people and the culture. It's a sacred process."

Schenck added, "Living in Thermopolis I knew squat about the reservation right next door. That was almost criminal. You ought to know your neighbors. So I'm on a steep learning curve. Fortunately I have several Shoshone who are helping me, who have been very kind. They've been watching me over the past several years photographing [dances at various events]."

The joy of photography, Schenck said, is that it is "an emotional interpretation of something that caught my eye. I particularly like the ephemeral conditions, the very fleeting stuff that doesn't last. I've been fortunate enough to travel and witness the extraordinary landscapes and beauty all over the world."

He noted he still never gets tired of photographing close to home, especially the Wind River Canyon.

He has photographed on four continents.

While he is "retired" from teaching at the high school, Schenck said he will continue with his many photography projects as long as he is physically able, noting he no longer does the climbing he used to do in his younger years.

When will he retire from it all? "When I can't move. Here's the thing, if you stop learning then you've started dying and that's not just figuratively, because your brain is starting to check out so it's got to be a challenge."

Schenck and his wife Gail live in Thermopolis. They have two grown daughters, Jessica, and Jennica a physician's assistant in pediatrics in Omaha, Nebraska.


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