sarafochtWhat is your current job title?
I am a Conservation Educator at MK Nature Center for Idaho Department of Fish and Game. That means I teach classes at the Nature Center for about 10,000 students annually. Most of our crowd is prek-3rd graders. I do that ¾ time. My other job title for 1/4th of my time, is the Idaho Master Naturalist Program Coordinator. The IMNP is a state wide program that I coordinate. It is an adult education and volunteer program.

How did you get into this field?
Well, I probably was born to do this. My parents were both elementary school teachers and I kind of fought that path a little, though my talents are kind of a fit for that. I have also always loved camping and wildlife and plants and being outside….so I went into Recreation Management in college and ended up focusing on Interpretation. I had some jobs that I loved after college and before I went to graduate school that were related. I was a Wilderness Ranger and Firefighter and Interpreter. Then I attended the Teton Science Schools’ Professional Residency in Environmental Education for a year and finished my Master’s degree at University of Idaho in the Conservation Social Science Program. I landed the Watchable Wildlife Program Coordinator job at Idaho Department of Fish and Game and did that for three years before they offered me a job teaching. I loved the Watchable Wildlife job, but at the chance to do more teaching….I jumped in!

What are you working on right now?
Right now I am welcoming two new graduate students from Boise State University to their year as teachers at MK Nature Center. They come to us through the GK-12 program funded by the National Science Foundation. The program puts scientists into the classroom and in our case, the scientists are put into our nature center. This is our third year of the program and it has been fun to coach these young, energetic, biology and hydrology students to teach preschool students about cactus or crayfish or the water cycle. It takes me out of the classroom a little, but it sure helps me think about teaching from another perspective! Just like when I have to learn about salmon and teach it…I have to think about teaching and then teach IT.

GirlsInCreekWhat is your favorite part of your job?
I love taking a topic and making it into a program. I suppose you might call that curriculum design or lesson planning. I love thinking about who my audience and figuring out what they already know….so I can create something new and stick it to what they know. I get to do a lot of that with my job, so that is great! I love it because I get to research something and learn it myself first. So for example today when I was teaching our FUN WITH FUNGUS class. The kids were not sure if fungus was an animal or plant or neither. We got into quite a fun discussion about Spongebob Squarepants!

If you could change anything about your work, what would it be?
It sounds kind of idealistic, but I have a lot of ideas that I feel cannot come to fruition because of barriers that are beyond my control. Policy or money or staff levels. I am pretty creative and can work through some of those barriers, but sometimes it is not realistic to take the time to make something happen. Thankfully, my ideas still keep coming, so I am not letting these barriers stop me from dreaming big.

Do you have any advice for someone starting out in this field?
I always advise new environmental educators to get a lot of broad experiences. If they can volunteer here and there, that is the best way to get to know people and get experience. Also, I encourage folks to learn about graphic design and fundraising. These are two skills I dabble in, but for which I have no formal training. I really could be more effective in my job if I were better at these things. I always find myself telling new teachers here at the Nature Center that enthusiasm is the most important aspect of a program. You don’t have to know all the answers. You don’t have to be funny and have perfect teaching skills all the time….but enthusiasm is a must. Kids will love what they do here if they see you loving what you do!

Where do you find inspiration for the work you do?
Oh, I have no lack of inspiration! I am inspired by the kids who come to the Nature Center. They are so curious and energetic and enthusiastic. In fact, today I was feeling kind of lethargic and I did not really feel I had the energy to teach, but I did and those kids really turned my mood around. In no time I was totally into the program that I have taught probably 600 times. My co-workers really inspire me. We are all a bunch of nature lovers and it is so fun to come to work and talk about it all day long. I am completely inspired by nature…that sounds awfully cliché, but it is true. As an example, we got this new book at our gift shop and I was just thumbing through it and learned that snakes eat eggs (which I knew), and then they spit out the shells (which I did not know). I love what I know, but I really love what I don’t know and what I find out. It seems like every day, something blows me away! It could be the rose wasp that makes these crazy Dr. Seuss-looking puffy galls or the kid who asks how long it takes a mushroom spore to die!

What is your favorite resource or tool for teaching about nature?
Well, the environment, of course! The spider who spins his web between two branches next to the bridge so I can throw an ant in his web and we can watch it wrap it up for lunch. The ants who wreck our pavers and prefer goldfish crackers over licorice (I know this because of our ant experiments). The fawns who get scared when we walk down the path and run to their mom to nurse right in front of a clan of 1st graders. Or that teeny tiny jumping spider who had a mayfly in its mouth! I did not know they carried them around in their mouths like that.

Where do you go when you want to recharge your batteries?
That is really a funny question because I occasionally complain to my husband that I miss nature and he says, “but you work at a NATURE CENTER!” It is kind of ironic! But I am a former Wilderness Ranger and need that backcountry experience with solitude! I don’t get that much anymore, since I have little kids, but heck, car camping along a Forest Service road (no campgrounds please) does the trick. We go camping a lot.

What is your favorite place to visit in the Pacific Northwest?
I love the Sawtooth Mountains. I lived there and worked there for many years and it feels so much like home. Besides that area, I also love the Cascades and wish I could visit there more often. I worked at Mount St. Helens for a summer and just love the plants and geology and all those elk!

Who do you consider your environmental hero?
I have quite a few people who have influenced me along the way, but my grandmother always stands out as someone who has influenced me the most. My grandmother spent her adult life during the depression. Her lifestyle was more associated with her economic situation than an environmental decision. Nonetheless, she was an avid gardener, sewer, and homemaker. They did not waste anything! I remember vividly a time when I was sitting at her kitchen table. In the middle of the table, on top of the lace tablecloth, was a tray with toothpicks, room temperature butter, home-made jam, and napkins. On this particular day, there was a small strip of dark green fabric on the tray. I picked it up and asked my grandmother what it was. She told me she had been sewing grandpa’s pants….taking them in and that was a belt loop that came off his pants. I asked her why it was on the table and she said because she might use it for something. She totally would have used it too! She made everything and wasted nothing. I really long for a lifestyle where I could be more like her!


Sara Focht receiving the IdEEA Non-Formal Environmental Educator of the Year award at the 2012 IdEEA Conference.

Are you optimistic about the future?
I am! I know that I live and work in a nature bubble. My friends and co-workers are all pretty environmentally conscious. We ride our bikes and recycle and buy local food. We get our kids outside and spend our careers working toward a more sustainable future. So, because of this bubble, I think I am able to keep pretty positive about the future. Every once in a while I step outside the bubble and realize the way I think and live is not what everyone is doing. I do get discouraged sometimes. No matter what I am feeling, I still feel motivated and know that what I am doing does make a difference on some scale. For our community, the MK Nature Center is a pretty special place! We teach a lot of people and we provide an opportunity for people to see wildlife in the city. I am happy to be a part of it.