An Interview with Rus Higley
2016 Marine Education Classroom Educator of the Year
Rus Higley has worked as Manager at the Marine Science and Technology Center at Highline College since its opening in 2003. He was born in Alaska, but grew up in Des Moines and graduated from Western Washington University with a B.S. in Marine Biology. He then went on to get his M.S. in Curriculum & Instruction from Old Dominion, and Master of Marine Affairs from the University of Washington. Besides managing the MaST Center, Rus teaches classes at Highline College in Marine Biology, Environmental Sciences and Oceanography, and teaches Environmental Sciences at the University of Washington, Tacoma.
Rus Higley was recently named the 2016 Marine Educator of the Year by the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators (NAME).
Congratulations on being named the 2016 Outstanding Classroom Educator by NAME. So what led you to becoming an environmental educator in the first place?
After college, I joined Peace Corps where I taught science to high school students and worked at a catfish hatchery. While doing that I learned that I enjoyed teaching and so have continued to develop opportunities. When I returned to the Northwest, I had a non-teaching position with Highline College. Shortly, after I started, I got a call from the VP for instruction who knew my background and had an oceanography class without an instructor…the catch was it started in 3 days. 17 years later I’m still teaching!
Did you have a specific experience as a child that connected you to the natural world?
I’m originally from Sitka, Alaska and spent most of my childhood summers up there. My friends and I always played on the beach looking for animals, getting stuck in the mud, and fishing. It always seemed like the only choice.
What are you working on right now?
In addition to everything else, I’m working with Washington SCUBA Alliance on the creation of an artificial reef for divers here in Redondo, WA. A recent meeting with Senator Karen Kaiser gave us a lot of hope for this to move forward. Part of the motivation for this is that the state is removing toxic materials, such as pilings and tires, from the Puget Sound. Although a long term gain for the health of the Puget Sound, it is a short term loss of some beautiful habitat and dive sites. This reef would use natural materials to build appropriate structures for local marine life. One big aspect we are working on is the research that is needed to show that this in truly a “good” idea, so we are working to develop a suitable research program to look at the diversity of life both before and after it is built.
What is your favorite part of your job?
If you’d asked me 10-15 years ago to describe my perfect job, except for the warm and tropical part, I’ve got it. Not only do I get to teach oceanography and marine biology to college students, I get to run an amazing community sized marine aquarium. The MaST Center is a 3,000 gallon aquarium facility for Highline College that not only has college classes but brings in thousands of school kids and thousands of visitors every year. Our small crew of staff and volunteers have done so many amazing things and continue to push the limits.
Can you share a story about a project that worked really well, or a particular student you remember?
Over this fall quarter, as the technical advisor, I am working with the Foss Waterway Seaport and Tacoma Public Schools to articulate a 23 foot gray whale skeleton. We started this project last Christmas, when it was found dead on the beach. Since then, we’ve conducted a necropsy, flensed the meat off, composted the bones, and are now articulating the skeleton. The work is being done by 15 Stadium High School students who during the quarter have talked to an engineer about the structural limitations including a proposed “pose” for the animals, an ethical conversation on whether it should or should not be named, a naturopathic doctor to compare human and whale bones, the lead scientist for the necropsy to help determine why it died. While all of that has been going on, the students are literally putting the whale together.
[Note: Check out The Tacoma News Tribune article on this project]
What are your biggest concerns about the state of marine/aquatic education today?
Most kids have a passion for the ocean but it is limited to whales, sea turtles, and Nemo. My biggest concern and goal is taking that passion and using it to grow them into educated citizens and maybe even a scientist.
You’re a strong advocate for environmental justice. How do you incorporate that into the work you’re currently doing?
Highline College is one of the most diverse colleges in America and serves in South King County one of the most diverse populations. Helping people realize that they are a part of the environment and need to take ownership for their choices is really important. Much of our outreach is focusing on the non-traditional “student”. As a teacher, working with students to explore ideas like internal and external cost. For example last year, one of my classes dug really deeply into a proposed methanol plant in Tacoma which was eventually cancelled before being built.
Do you have any advice for someone starting out in this field?
Build your résumé. My daughter is a sophomore in college where it is easy to get lost especially at the larger schools. Being in the top 10% of a class of 500 students does not stand out. What else have you done? Referring back to the whale, imagine the resume of the Stadium High School students who took all these great classes AND BUILT A WHALE! Get connected with your teachers and professionals as they often know of opportunities that you may not have heard of. Also, find your dream job(s). If you don’t know where you want to be in 10 years, it’s hard to work for that. Even though I’m not looking for a new job and in fact love my job, I have literally over a hundred job descriptions of possible jobs for me in the future. Every time I see a job description that sounds interesting, I save it in my file. Also get on professional organizations and look for their job boards. For example, if you want to work in an aquarium, the Association of Zoos and Aquarium job/internship board has opportunities from all over.
Where do you find inspiration for the work you do?
The students are an obvious answer and are some of my biggest inspiration. Seeing them make the connections, seeing them open their eyes to a new thing or way of thinking, is amazing. Also, I try to keep current in the field to help motivate me to continue to push myself.
What is your favorite resource or tool for teaching marine science?
The web has so many real time, global sized resources. One of my new favorite visualizations for the planet is earth.nullschool.net which has a nearly real time model of wind, temperature, ocean currents, etc.
What’s your favorite marine creature?
Like a lot of divers in the Pacific Northwest, I love the octopuses. Any dive that finds an octopus is a good dive. At my marine center, we have the opportunity to work with several animals for long periods of time. Watching them grow, learn how to recognize people, and play is amazing. Last year, I even took an octopus to prison for a talk on octopus intelligence. I also generally dive with our octopus during our Octopus Graduation event where we release them back into the Puget Sound and follow them with a streaming camera so the audience can watch real time on the surface. Google “octopus graduation” and you can find some of the old videos.
Where do you go when you want to recharge your batteries?
I’m a river rafter and have been guiding for over 20 years. Getting on the river feeds me. This past August, my wife and I, along with a group of friends, spent 18 days rafting the Grand Canyon. Although a challenging experience, living on “river time” changes the way I look at things.
Do you have a favorite place to visit in the Pacific Northwest?
We love to go camping and two of my favorites are Cape Disappointment which is down by the mouth of the Columbia River and Salt Creek Recreation Area up by Port Angeles. Both feature the ocean but are significantly different environments.
Are you reading any great books at the moment?
I’m currently working on Energy for Future Presidents by Muller. Although I don’t agree with everything he says, he really works to try to make honest comparisons and has me reevaluating some of my opinions. For example, how does solar power compare to nuclear to natural gas. I’d really love to have a follow up conversation with him because I think he glosses over some of those external costs.
Another favorite is Shell Games by Craig Welch who explores the illegal trade of geoducks here in the Puget Sound area. It’s a factual book that reads like a crime fiction novel.
And finally, who do you consider your environmental heroes?
Rachel Carson whose work Silent Spring played a role in the start of the modern environmental movement. Her science was amazing and her strength to stand up to all the people who thought women can’t be scientists continues to inspire me.
Nowadays, Elon Musk and his push for game changing improvements in alternative energies. We need people to think big.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Thanks for including me in your great publication. Being recognized for doing the stuff I love is a true honor.
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Open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to the public, the MaST Center, mast.highline.edu, is located at 28203 Redondo Beach Drive S.—halfway between Seattle and Tacoma and about 5 minutes south of the main Highline Campus.
Ear to the Ground is a regular feature of CLEARING. Check the website for previous interviews.