Ralph Harrison is the 2013 winner of the EPA’s Presidential Award for Innovation in Environmental Education. We caught up to him as he was heading for Alaska and managed to get some insight into his personal perspectives and motivations as a teacher of environmental science.
What is your current job title?
I’m the Science Department head at the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma Public Schools.
How did you get into this field?
I hold Bachelor’s degree in Science Education Central Washington University and Masters in Biology from Washington State University. I’ve been an active member of the Washington State Science Teachers Association Board for ten plus years. I advocate for high quality science teaching, experiential learning, and inquiry-based learning.
And how did your current position come about?
I worked as a founding teacher of Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA), and focused my time to develop a quality science and math program in an arts-focused highschool. I believe strongly in the importance of high quality science instruction for all students 9-12th grades and integration with the arts. From work with my colleagues at SOTA, we hatched the idea for SAMI, another community partnership school at Point Defiance Park, where the 702-acre park setting became the classroom. I worked with a team as one of the founding teachers of Science and Math Institute high school.
The natural beauty of the park inspired an environmental science focus for the school. From there, I developed a full outdoor education science program that included phenology of plants and animals.
What is your motivation for this work?
I’m passionate about making a difference in science and environmental education for students and creating schools where students and teachers capitalize on community assets. Students find their passion through relevant learning; their success is the focal point.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working to develop partnerships with local and national organizations. One I’m particularly excited about is with the USA National Phenology Network. SAMI students in outdoor education classes will be integrating their phenology gathering fieldwork into the national database. I’m also working to integrate our school’s robotics program into field gathering instruments. The students and I are building a hexacopter to act as a data gathering platform to research 150-foot tall Douglas Fir tree snags in the park.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Being able to be outside with students researching and actively learning in the park’s forests.
If you could change anything about your work, what would it be?
I’m passionate about students participating in relevant, active, learning, research and science. As technology and the advancement of science continues at a lightning pace, I want the students to have access to the most current instruments and protocols so that they’re learning is relevant and timely. I struggle to provide these materials with limited resources. That’s why I consistently seek partnerships.
How do you feel about the Next Generation Science Standards?
I’m all in on standards based teaching as well as Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s). PLC’s bring the old and new together, and form common strategies, voice, and collegiality. The SOTA and SAMI staff work hand-in-hand to bring the NGSS and the Washington State Standards in a common voice to the students. I cite a 30% jump of test scores in the Washington Biology End of Course exam this past year as evidence that standards based teaching as well as PLC’s have a dramatic impact.
Where do you find inspiration for the work you do?
I have the great privilege of living near Point Defiance Park on Salmon Beach (Google earth it and you’ll see what I mean), an old community built on pilings 100 years ago right below the park I work at. I want to share with the students the natural resources that I’ve come to know love.
What is your favorite resource or tool for teaching about the environment?
My collection of various field guides from all over the Pacific Northwest, like my favorite, Pojar& MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast.
Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
I’m an avid fly-fishermen and enjoy travelling throughout the Northwest enjoying the environments I visit as I fish.
What is your favorite Nature / Environment book?
Trees, Truffles and Beasts by; Chris Maser, Andrew Claridge, and James Trappe.
Who do you consider your environmental hero?
My colleague and friend Ken Luthy, who I’ve worked with for twenty three years, teaching together and starting schools. I’m inspired by his passion for the environment, his time spent as a National Park Ranger during the summer months, and his dedication to teaching high school and learning.
What words of encouragement would you give a new science teacher just entering the classroom?
It takes years to truly get the hang of teaching science. Work with your colleagues to make science instruction the highest quality and relevant to your students and community. Seek out what your communities assets are and use them. Bring your class outside of the walls that define your school, especially with regards to Environmental Education.