Providing opportunities for students of color to explore
the outdoors and science careers
Text and photos by Sprinavasa Brown
recall the high school science teacher who doubted my capacity to succeed in advanced biology, the pre-med advisers who pointed my friend Dr. Kellianne Richardson and me away from their program and discouraged us from considering a career in medicine – biased advice given under the guise of truth and tough love.
I remember only three classes with professors of color in my four years at college, only one of whom was a woman. We needed to see her, to hold faith that as women of color, we were good enough, we were smart enough to be there. We were simply enough, and we had so much to contribute to medicine, eager to learn, to improve and to struggle alongside our mostly White peers at our private liberal arts college.
These are the experiences that led Kellianne and me to see the need for more spaces set aside for future Black scientists, for multi-hued Brown future environmentalists.
The story of Camp ELSO (Experience Life Science Outdoors) started with our vision. We want Black and Brown children to access more and better experiences than we did, experiences that help them see their potential in science, that prepare them for the potentially steep learning curve that comes with declaring a science major. We want Black and Brown kids to feel comfortable in a lab room, navigating a science library, and advocating for themselves with faculty and advisers. We hope to inspire their academic pursuits by laying the foundation with curiosity and critical thinking.
Creating a sense of belonging
Camp ELSO’s Wayfinders program is our main program for youths in kindergarten through sixth grade. What began as a programmatic response to our community needs assessment – filling the visible gap in accessible, affordable, experiential science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for young Black and Brown children – quickly grew into a refuge space for youth of greater Portland. Wayfinders is all about creating a safe uplifting and affirming space for youth to engage in learning around four key areas: life science, ecology, community and cultural history. While our week-long sessions include field trip sites similar to many mainstream environmental education programs, our approach is sharply focused on grounding the youth experience in environmental justice while elevating the visibility and leadership opportunities for folks of color.
We are creating a special place for Black and Brown youth to have transformative experiences, to create memories that we hope will stick with them until adulthood. Creating such a space comes with difficulties, the type of challenges that force our leadership to make tough decisions that we believe will yield the best outcomes for youth underrepresented in STEM fields. For instance, how to mitigate the undertones of colonization, nationalism, and co-opting of traditional knowledge – harmful practices ingrained in mainstream environmental education.
To do so, we invest in training young adults of color to lead as camp guides. We provide resources to support them in developing the skills necessary to engage youth of diverse ethnicities, backgrounds, socioeconomic status and family structure. Our guides practice taking topics and developing discussion questions and lesson plans that are relevant and engaging. We know that the more our staff represents the communities we serve, the closer we get to ensuring that Camp ELSO programming is responsive to the needs of children of color, authentic to their lived experience, and is a reflection of the values of our organization and community.
In 2019 nearly 100 children of color from greater Portland will participate in Camp ELSO’s Wayfinders program over spring and summer break, spending over 40 hours in a week-long day camp engaging in environmental STEM learning and enjoying the outdoors. We reach more children and families through our community outreach events like “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day: Women of Color Panel” and “Endangered Species Day: Introduction to Youth Activism.”
The most critical aspects of our Wayfinders program happens even before we welcome a single child through our doors. With the intent of purifying the air and spirit, we smudge with cedar and sage to prepare the space. When a child shows up, they are greeted by name. We set the tone for the day with yoga and affirmations to the sounds of Stevie Wonder and Yemi Alade as we strive to expose our kids to global music from diverse cultures.
We have taken the time to ask parents thoughtful questions in the application process to help us prepare to welcome their child to our community. We have painstakingly selected what we feel is a balanced, blended group of eager young minds from diverse ethnic backgrounds: Black, Latinx, the children of immigrants, multi and biracial children of various ethnicities, fuego and magic. Our children come from neighborhoods across Portland and its many suburbs. They come from foster care, single-parent households, affluent homes, homes where they are adopted into loving and beautifully blended families, strong and proud Black families, and intergenerational households with active grandmas and aunties. Consistent with every child and every household is an interest and curiosity around STEM, a love of nature and the outdoors.
The children arrive full of potential and the vitality of youth. Some are shy, and nerves are visible each morning. By the end of the week we’ve built trust and rapport with each of them, we’ve sat in countless circles teaching them our values based in Afrocentric principles, values selected by previous camp guides representing the youth voice that actively shapes the camp’s culture.
On our way to more distant Metro sites like Blue Lake and Oxbow regional parks and Quamash Prairie, we play DJ in the van. Each kid who wants to has an opportunity to share their favorite song with the group, and if you know the words, you’d better belt it out. We share food and pass around snacks while some children rest and others catch up with old friends. Many more are deep in conversation forging new friendships.
When we arrive, we remind the kids of what is expected of them. We have no doubts that each and every child will respect the land and respect our leaders. The boundaries are clear, and our expectations for them don’t change when problems arise. We hold them to the highest standards, regardless of their life situation. We respect, listen, and embrace who they are.
We are often greeted by Alice Froehlich, a Metro naturalist. Our kids know Alice, and the mutual trust, respect and accountability we have shared over the last three years has been the foundation to create field trips that cater to the needs of our blended group – and oh, it is a beautiful group.
At Oxbow, we are also greeted by teen leaders from the Oregon Zoo’s ZAP (Zoo Animal Presenters) program. These teens of color join us each year for what always ends up being a highlight of the week: playing in the frigid waters of the Sandy River, our brown skin baking under the hot summer sun, music in the background and so much laughter. Like family, we enjoy one another’s company.
Then we break into smaller groups and head into the ancient forest. Almost immediately the calm of the forest envelopes our youth. The serenity that draws us to nature turns our group of active bodies into quieted beings content to listen, observe, respond and reflect. It doesn’t take much for them to find their rhythm and adjust to nature’s pace. Similarly, when we kayak the Tualatin River or canoe the Columbia Slough, they are keen to show their knowledge of local plants and taking notice as the occasional bird comes into view. We learn as much from them as we do from our guides.
These are the moments that allow Camp ELSO’s participants to feel welcome, not just to fit in but to belong. To feel deeply connected to the earth, to nature and to community.
Encouragement for my community
As a Black environmental educator I’m always navigating two frames of view. One is grounded in my Americanness, the other is grounded in my Blackness, the lineage of my people from where I pull my strength and affirm my birthright. I wear my identities with pride, however difficult it can be to navigate this world as a part of two communities, two identities. One part of me is constantly under attack from the other that is rife with nationalism, anti-Brownness, and opposition toward the people upon whose lives and ancestry this country was built.
I am a descendant of African people and the motherland. I’m deeply connected to the earth as a descendant of strong, free, resilient and resourceful Black people. The land is a part of me, part of who I am. My ancestors toiled, and they survived, they lived off, they cultivated, and they loved the land.
As a black woman, my relationship with the land and its bounty is a part of my heritage. It’s in my backyard garden, where I grow greens from my great-grandmother’s seeds passed down to me from my mother, who taught me how to save, store and harvest them. Greens from the motherland I was taught to cook by my Sierra Leonean, Rwandese and Jamaican family – aunties and uncles I’ve known as my kin since I was a child. It’s in the birds that roam my backyard, short bursts and squawks as my children chase them. The land is in the final jar my mother canned last summer when the harvest was good, and she had more tomatoes than we could eat after sharing with her church, neighbors and family.
Our connection to the land was lost through colonization, through the blanket of whiteness that a culture and set of values instilled upon us all as westerners living on stolen Indigenous land and working in systems influenced by one dominant culture. Our sacred connection with outdoor spaces was lost as laws set aside the “great outdoors” as if it were for White men only. These laws pushed us from our heritage and erased the stories of our forefathers, forgetting that the Buffalo Soldiers were some of the first park rangers, that the movement for justice was first fought by Black and Brown folks.
We grew our own food before our land was stripped away. We lived in harmony with the natural world before our communities were destroyed, displaced or forcibly relocated. We were healthy and thriving when we ate the food of our ancestors, before it was co-opted and appropriated. We must remember and reclaim this relationship for ourselves and for our children.
We are trying to do this with Camp ELSO, starting with our next generation. Children have the capacity to bring so much to environmental professions that desperately need Black and Brown representation. These professions need the ideas, innovations and solutions that can only come from the lived experiences of people of color. Children of color can solve problems that require Indigenous knowledge, cultural knowledge and knowledge of the African Diaspora. We want to give kids learning experiences that are relevant in today’s context, as more people become aware of racial equity and as the mainstream environmental movement starts to recognize historical oppression of people of color.
We need more spaces for Black and Brown children to see STEM professionals who are relatable through shared experiences, ethnicity, culture and history. We need spaces that allow Black children to experience the outdoors in a majority setting with limited influence of Whiteness – not White people but Whiteness – the dominant culture and norms that influence almost every aspect of our lives.
Camp ELSO is working to be that space. We aren’t there yet. We are on our own learning journey, and it comes with constant challenges and a need to continuously question, heal, build and fortify our own space.
Sprinavasa Brown is the co-founder and executive director of Camp ELSO. She also serves on Metro’s Public Engagement Review Committee and the Parks and Nature Equity Advisory Committee.
Advice for White Environmentalists and Nature Educators
by Sprinavasa Brown
I often hear White educators ask “What should I do?” expressing an earnest desire to move beyond talking about equity and inclusion to wanting action steps toward meaningful change.
I will offer you my advice as a fellow educator. It is both a command and a powerful tool for individual and organizational change for those willing to shift their mindset to understand it, invest the time to practice it and hold fast to witness its potential.
The work of this moment is all about environmental justice centered in social justice, led by the communities most impacted by the outcomes of our collective action. It’s time to leverage your platform as a White person to make space for the voice of a person of color. It’s time to connect your resources and wealth to leaders from underrepresented communities so they can make decisions that place their community’s needs first.
If you have participated in any diversity trainings, you are likely familiar with the common process of establishing group agreements. Early on, set the foundation for how you engage colleagues, a circumspect reminder that meaningful interpersonal and intrapersonal discourse has protocols in order to be effective. I appreciate these agreements and the principles they represent because they remind us that this work is not easy. If you are doing it right, you will and should be uncomfortable, challenged and ready to work toward a transformational process that ends in visible change.
I want you to recall one such agreement: step up, step back, step aside.
That last part is where I want to focus. It’s a radical call to action: Step aside! There are leaders of color full of potential and solutions who no doubt hold crucial advice and wisdom that organizations are missing. Think about the ways you can step back and step aside to share power. Step back from a decision, step down from a position or simply step aside. If you currently work for or serve on the board of an organization whose primary stakeholders are from communities of color, then this advice is especially for you.
Stepping aside draws to attention arguably the most important and effective way White people can advance racial equity, especially when working in institutions that serve marginalized communities. To leverage your privilege for marginalized communities means removing yourself from your position and making space for Black and Brown leaders to leave the margins and be brought into the fold of power.
You may find yourself with the opportunity to retire or take another job. Before you depart, commit to making strides to position your organization to hire a person of color to fill the vacancy. Be outspoken, agitate and question the status quo. This requires advocating for equitable hiring policies, addressing bias in the interview process and diversifying the pool with applicants with transferable skills. Recruit applicants from a pipeline supported and led by culturally specific organizations with ties to the communities you want to attract, and perhaps invite those community members to serve on interview panels with direct access to hiring managers.
As an organizational leader responsible for decisions related to hiring, partnerships and board recruitment, I have made uncomfortable, hard choices in the name of racial equity, but these choices yield fruitful outcomes for leaders willing to stay the course. I’ve found myself at crossroads where the best course forward wasn’t always clear. This I have come to accept is part of my equity journey. Be encouraged: Effective change can be made through staying engaged in your personal equity journey. Across our region we have much work ahead at the institutional level, and even more courage is required for hard work at the interpersonal level.
In stepping aside you create an opportunity for a member of a marginalized community who may be your colleague, fellow board member or staff member to access power that you have held.
White people alone will not provide all of the solutions to fix institutional systems of oppression and to shift organizational culture from exclusion to inclusion. These solutions must come from those whose voices have not been heard. Your participation is integral to evolving systems and organizations and carrying out change, but your leadership as a White person in the change process is not.
The best investment we can make for marginalized communities is to actively create and hold space for leaders of color at every level from executives to interns. Invest time and energy into continuous self-reflection and selfevaluation. This is not the path for everyone, but I hope you can see that there are a variety of actions that can shift the paradigm of the environmental movement. If you find yourself unsure of what action steps best align with where you or your organization are at on your equity journey, then reach out to organizations led by people of color, consultants, and leaders and hire them for their leadership and expertise. By placing yourself in the passenger seat, with a person of color as the driver, you can identify areas to leverage your privilege to benefit marginalized communities.
Finally, share an act of gratitude. Be cognizant of opportunities to step back and step aside and actively pursue ways to listen, understand and practice empathy with your colleagues, community members, neighbors and friends.
Camp ELSO is an example of the outcomes of this advice. Our achievements are most notable because it is within the context of an organization led 100 percent by people of color from our Board of Directors to our seasonal staff. This in the context of a city and state with a history of racial oppression and in a field that is historically exclusively White.
We began as a community-supported project and are growing into a thriving community-based organization successfully providing a vital service for Black and Brown youths across the Portland metro area. The support we have received has crossed cultures, bridged the racial divide and united partners around our vision. It is built from the financial investments of allies – public agencies, foundations, corporations and individuals. I see this as an act of solidarity with our work and our mission, and more importantly, an act of solidarity and support for our unwavering commitment to racial equity.
This article is a story of how fourth-grade students in Moscow, Idaho studied the confluence of cultures throughout Idaho’s history by building a canoe, hand-carving paddles, and actively participating in the resurgence of the traditional canoe throughout the Pacific Northwest region. We hope you enjoy seeing our work and seeing how we went through this process!
Editor note: This article was written by fourth-grade students at Palouse Prairie Charter School during the spring of 2018. Students were guided through the process in groups and this narrative is the product of that work. The teacher and collaborating faculty from a local university supported the writing, editing, and revision process. The level of adult guidance varies in each section. Students wrote this as an extension of the article “Burning Wisdom: The Canoe as a Vessel for Learning” published in the Fall 2017 issues of CLEARING, which documented the previous year’s canoe-building project with a focus on the curriculum.
magine a life with no cars, no planes, no city buses, only canoes. Imagine you are in Idaho 200 years ago, that you are surrounded by rivers, and you mainly travel by canoe. For the indigenous peoples of Idaho and throughout the United States, the canoe used to be the main means of transportation and communication. Many tribes around the region, including the Kalispel, Coeur d’ Alene, and Nez Perce (Nimi´ipuu) of Idaho, have not built canoes for over one hundred years. For example, up until 2018, the Nimi´ipuu had not made a dugout for one hundred and thirteen years. The reason for this is that throughout the process of colonization of indigenous peoples in the 1800s and 1900s, many tribes were removed from their land and prohibited from practicing their cultures. For example, their children were taken to boarding schools and taught that it was bad to live by their cultures, speak their languages, and build their canoes. The importance of the traditional canoe for the inhabitants of this land was temporarily hidden, but it is coming back. By building their traditional canoes again, indigenous peoples are reclaiming their culture.
In our fourth-grade class at Palouse Prairie Charter School (PPCS), we spent a semester studying the westward exploration and expansion of the United States, colonization, the impacts on indigenous peoples who have inhabited our region’s lands for centuries, and the cultural revival that is currently happening through the resurgence of the traditional canoe. During this time, we spent ten weeks building a David Thompson style cedar plank canoe. David Thompson was the first known explorer to navigate the length of the Columbia River, from headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. He also made some of the first maps of the region. David Thompson built many canoes on his voyages by combining European canoe forms and Indigenous techniques that he learned from peoples he met along the way. We built our canoe as an example and memory of the confluence of cultures in our region – the Northwestern United States.
The Resurgence of the Traditional Canoe – Native Perspectives
We are hoping to capture our learning and reflections in this article. Many texts available to children (and to people in general) are written from the perspective of settlers. We interviewed members of tribes in Idaho who are helping build canoes to bring back their cultures. We interviewed Nathan Piengkham from the Kalispel tribe, and Standing Red Bear (Gary Dorr) from the Nez Perce tribe in order to tell you the story from their points of view. Both Nathan and Gary have been helping people reconnect to indigenous canoe culture by building canoes together with their tribal and non-tribal communities. We have included their stories as part of the learning and reflections that we share in this article. We have also prepared transcripts of these interviews as two separate short articles following this one. We hope that their stories help you see the importance of playing an active role in the resurgence of the traditional canoe in the Northwestern United States. We also hope that their stories help you respect people that might have a different culture than you.
Standing Red Bear, our Nimi´ipuu friend helped build New Medicine, the first Nimi´ipuu dugout canoe on the Nez Perce Reservation in 113 years. He taught us about the historical and cultural importance of canoes for native peoples and led us in ceremony to extend peace and safety to all the people who help carve and will travel in this canoe.
“Canoes were our hunting rigs, our grocery carts, we rode across the river to collect berries in them. We’re building canoes again now to reclaim part of our culture.”
– Standing Red Bear, Nez Perce Tribe
Read Gary’s complete interview here
“The canoes are bringing our communities together.”
– Nathan Piengkham, Kalispel Tribe.
Read Nathan’s complete interview here
The tribes are bringing back the canoe. And it is having a very positive impact on their lives. Nathan Piengkham from the Kalispel Tribe explained, “Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol or other boring stuff, or instead of leaving the tribe and going somewhere else, now people can stay home and work with the canoes. They can learn our Salish Language of the Kalispel Tribe, and they can learn how to get the natural foods from our mountains.” As the fourth-grade crew, we are thankful to be part of this historically significant movement.
How has the confluence of cultures shaped who we are?
Throughout our semester-long learning expedition, we studied many topics in order to try to answer one overarching question. The “guiding question” we started with was “How has the confluence of cultures shaped who we are?” Throughout our studies we continually came back to this question to reflect on our own answers. An important part of figuring out how to answer this question was understanding what confluence of cultures means.
To explain the meaning of confluence of cultures, we will break it up into separate words. First, culture is how people live and interact. Many people have a different understanding of culture. In our class, we interviewed a handful of our own students to see what they think culture means. There were various different viewpoints of culture which include traditions, stories that are passed down from generation to generation that allow people to experience the history of their culture, what a person does for a living, what a person does on a daily basis, what people do and believe in, and the values we teach, learn, and live by. The important thing that we agreed on is that we all respect each other even if we are different.
We discovered that culture has many layers. The outer layers are the things that you can see, like clothing, food or language. As you get deeper into the layers the parts of culture get more meaningful and harder to see, like the social norms we follow, and our values and beliefs. An example of these layers of culture is shown in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. The layers of culture
Second, a confluence is a place where streams or rivers merge or flow together.
A confluence of cultures is when cultures meet and merge. Sometimes when two cultures meet they flow together and sometimes they clash. Sometimes cultures come together in perfect balance and sometimes not. We studied the clash of cultures that occurred between Columbus and the Arawaks, and between settlers and indigenous peoples during colonization as the United States expanded its territory westward. We also studied the flow of cultures that occurred when the Nimi´ipuu welcomed Lewis and Clark, nursed them back to good health and showed them the way to the Pacific Ocean. We studied many examples of the confluence of cultures in Idaho’s history, both positive and negative. But did you know that we are an example of the confluence of cultures just by doing this expedition? We visited the site in Lapwai, Idaho where the Nimi´ipuu were building their canoe New Medicine, and we also went to the Lapwai Senior’s Center and to the Lapwai Boys and Girls Club to spread kindness. Both are real examples of the confluence of cultures in our lives as fourth graders.
The confluence of cultures has shaped our ancestors, our own personal histories, and continues to shape our lives today. We spent ten weeks building our canoe as a symbol of the confluence of cultures in our lives – past, present, and future.
Building a David Thompson-style cedar plank canoe
Step 1: The math
In building a canoe, the first step is the math. We had to do some mathematical calculations to see how much wood to buy and to create a good plan for building. Without doing the math for the canoe we might have bought the wrong amount of wood, went over our budget, or wasted resources. We started by making estimations, which got better the further we got into the process of building our canoe. Eventually all the measurements added up and then we were ready to start building it! Here is an example of how we applied fourth-grade math to calculate how much wood we would need for the ribs of the canoe.
We knew the canoe would be 22 feet long. We multiplied 22 feet by 12 inches (because there are 12 inches in one foot) to find that the canoe would be 264 inches long. We also knew that every four inches, there would be a two-inch rib and a two-inch open space. So, we divided 264 inches by 4 inches, to find that we would need a total of 66 ribs for the canoe. Next, we needed to find the average length of the ribs in order to decide how much wood we needed to buy to make the ribs. We used Burning Wisdom, (the canoe that last year’s fourth-grade crew built) to take some measurements. We found that Burning Wisdom also had 66 ribs and the average length of these ribs was 52 inches. Then, we multiplied 66 ribs by 52 inches to find that we would need 3,432 inches of wood for the ribs. Then, we converted this to linear feet by dividing 3,432 inches by 12 inches to get a total of 286 linear feet. So, we knew we would need 286 linear feet of wood for the ribs.
Step 2: The gunwale
Then we made the gunwale, which is two long planks bent together to make the top shape of the canoe. The gunwale consists of inner and outer planks called the inwale and the outwale.
Step 3: The keel
Xander (pronounced Zander), our canoe-building guide, built the keel board. It consisted of three small boards glued together and bent into a “C” like shape. We connected each end of the keel to each end of the gunwale. This formed the frame of the canoe!
Step 4: The ribs
Then we soaked the rib planks in water so that we could carefully bend them into the shape of the ribs. We used last year’s canoe (Burning Wisdom) to bend the ribs over so that we could get the correct shape of the wood for each rib. Then, we screwed the end of each rib to the gunwale and the middle of each rib to the keel so that the ribs would stay in place. Together the ribs, keel and gunwale are like the skeleton of the canoe.
Step 5: The planks
Next, we built the planks. The planks are like the skin on a human. The planks are many long, flat pieces of wood covering the ribs so that water cannot get in while we are paddling in the river. The planks of the canoe are like the skin on a human.
Step 6: The fiberglass layer and epoxy
Next, we covered the outside of the canoe with a transparent fiberglass cloth, covered in epoxy. These layers will help keep water out of the canoe, but still let us appreciate the wood of our handmade cedar plank canoe.
Step 7: The name
Giving a name is an important part of welcoming a new canoe into the canoe family. Our class felt very lucky to help bring culture and canoes back to the native peoples of the land where we now live. Every canoe gives a little bit of culture back to the indigenous peoples in the area, which we took away from them long ago. As a crew we decided to name our canoe Blooming Culture because blooming means coming back. Flowers bloom in the spring, but they are always there as seeds. The tribes were never really gone and now they are making a huge effort to make their cultures more visible to tribal and non-tribal peoples. We should respect their cultures and help them with these efforts. Blooming Culture will send the message that culture is blooming again and canoes are helping with that. Our canoe is helping to bring back culture.
Step 8: Family mottos and paint
After studying how indigenous storytelling reveals culture and values, we interviewed our family members about our own family values and culture. We wrote stories with our “family motto” as the theme, and we each woodburned our family motto on the inside of the gunwale.
Finally, it was time to paint our canoe. We wanted our canoe to represent the seven directions in indigenous way of life that our experts taught us about. We painted our canoe with a medicine wheel to symbolize how it will carry our greatest hopes to all four cardinal directions – North, East, South and West. The stripes on the bottom of the canoe represent the fifth and sixth directions – green for Earth and blue for Sky. And the children sitting in the middle paddling the canoe represent the seventh direction – The Center.
The paddle-making process
Making paddles is an important part of the canoe-building process. You have to have a paddle to go out on the water in a canoe. Standing Red Bear told us that Nimi´ipuu children used to carve paddles while the men did the heavy working with logs to build the canoes. Similarly, this semester we worked on carving our paddles while we were waiting to learn a new step to build our canoe, or for our turn to do a specific job. Each fourth-grade student hand-carved their own cedar paddle. Together we made twenty-four paddles. Just like our canoe, all twenty-four of our paddles also help to bring back culture.
To make our paddles, first we had to find a cedar board that was about our height from the ground up to our chin. Next, we measured the distance from our armpit to the tip of our fingers to find the length of our shaft. Then, we used these measurements to draw out the shape of our paddle on our board. Then we used a hand planer and a spokeshave to take off layers and layers of wood until we liked the weight of the paddle and its general shape. The hand planer helped with taking off large curls of wood and rounding the edges. The spokeshave was good for shaving off smaller layers and with more detailed rounding.
Finally, we were ready to sand. We started by marking with crayon the places on one side of the paddle that needed to be sanded. First, we used 60 grit sandpaper to take all the crayon marks off then repeated the process with 100 grit, then 120, and lastly 150 grit. We repeated this same process on the other side. When both sides were smooth and soft, we were done sanding and ready to decorate our paddles. We used a hand saw to cut off chunks of wood we didn’t need, like the top of the ribs that stuck out above the gunwale.
We decorated the shaft and handle of the paddles by woodburning quotes with a message about protecting the cultural and natural resources of the land that native and non-native peoples share, and the importance of creating a true confluence of cultures. We collaborated with PPCS seventh-grade students who painted coastal formline art on the blades to express the connection between rivers, salmon and orcas, work which was guided by Samish Nation artists and part of their middle school spring learning expedition.
The power of the EL Education Model
Our school, Palouse Prairie Charter School, uses the EL Education (formerly called Expeditionary Learning) model. In this model, we balance rigor and joy. This means that we learn new things, and have fun while meeting Idaho State Education Standards for Social Studies, Literacy, Art and Humanities, and Science. The paddles and canoe we built shows how EL Education encourages us go out into the world, explore new ideas and work with and for people instead of only sitting at a desk to meet fourth-grade standards.
A key component of EL Education are the experts that teach us and help us with our projects. We want you to know about the many people who spent their time and energy to help us in this project. Two experienced canoe builders from Voyages of Rediscovery, The River School spent ten weeks guiding us through every step of building our canoe and carving our paddles. Several additional experienced canoe and paddle wood workers in the region helped us find better techniques to carve our paddles and helped us build our canoe. Several regional tribal members taught us about their cultures, shared stories with us, led us in ceremonies, and joined us in the canoe-building process. Two experienced storytellers from the University of Idaho taught us some storytelling techniques. An employee of NRS taught us how to be safe on the water for our canoe trip. Members of indigenous canoe families performed a naming ceremony for our canoe at our paddle trip and paddled with us in their own handmade dugout canoes. And a professor from the University of Idaho helped us write this article so we could share our story with you. All of this work was made possible by the financial support of the Nez Perce Tribe Local Education Program Fund and the Latah County Community Foundation. Thank you all for helping us!
Another key element of the EL Education model is Celebration of Learning, or a public event where we share our discoveries and hard work with our community. As our Celebration of Learning, we organized a paddle and camping trip to take our canoe on its first journey. On June 2-3, 2018 we paddled our canoe on the Snake River, together with traditional canoe families from throughout the Pacific Northwest region. At this event, two members of the regional indigenous canoe family led us in a naming ceremony to give Blooming Culture her name.
A canoe is a sacred piece of art and hard work that many Native Americans had lost and now are bringing back. Canoes are culture that needs to be preserved.” -Fourth-grade student
As fourth-grade students, we gained respect, understanding and curiosity about indigenous history and culture. When our teacher asked us about the most important things we learned in this project, one student said, “I discovered that the confluence of cultures was really a clash of cultures, like Gary said. We didn’t really flow together. The settlers pushed the Nez Perce off their land and forced them to leave. I now know that my house is really on Nez Perce land.” Another student stated, “I learned about the past, how hard it was, and how we still ended up in peace. I learned that we can have peace even when it is hard.” Another student said, “Our project matters because we went back in history and talked about what actually did happen and what should have happened.”
Our teacher also asked us about our hopes for the future confluence of cultures in Idaho. One student replied, “I hope that more people will care about the past. If kids keep learning about our history, I think we can keep honoring the people who did amazing things for us. It’s incredible how hard so many people fought to keep their tribes together when we moved onto their land. We all need to remember this.” Another student answered, “I hope that this canoe keeps reminding us of the past and remembering the amazing people of the past, and the amazing people of now. We need to remember what it was like in the past and what people went through, and I think this canoe is a good reminder!”
The PPCS fourth-grade crew would like to thank the many individuals for supporting us academically and personally throughout this project. We could not have done it without you!
A Biome Bonanza!
After taking a class for teachers about sustainability several years ago, my teaching partner and I were inspired to get kids out and about and connected to the natural world more. We looked at our science curriculum and with the help of Bob Carlson and his staff at our district’s CREST Center, we developed a couple of great overnight experiences for our students.
By Lisa Terrall, Bolton Elementary School
West Linn, Oregon
iving in Oregon, we have easy access to many different biomes in which living things have adapted differently to their environments and lots of locations where evidence of volcanic activity is visible. In 4th grade, we did a lot of work around plant and animal adaptations, as well as geological changes to the Earth. We developed a 4 day “Biome Bonanza,” during which we spent a day at the coast, a day in an Oak Savannah and two days in the Columbia River Gorge.
Our day at the beach is a day trip. We stop at a spot in the coast range mountains where we can find sea floor fossils at a fairly high elevation. This allows kid to begin to see evidence of plate tectonics and how the crust that used to be the sea floor was lifted and is now part of a mountain. They love discovering and trying to identify the fossils they find and are amazed at how dynamic the Earth is.
Our next stop is at the coast. We spend quite a bit of time exploring local tide pools and finding creatures that live there. Students get to see species they have researched up close and are able to begin to identify the structures and functions of their bodies and how they help with survival in that particular environment. Tide pools are great because they have multiple zones within them and the adaptations are different from zone to zone, as well as from tide pools to other surrounding environments like the ocean or the coastal forests. After our time in the tide pools we take a short forest hike, looking for how the environment is different, as well as how species have adapted for survival. We also get a good look at some of Oregon’s rocky cliffs and are able to see evidence of past basalt flows.
Our next day is spent in our town of West Linn, at a local Nature Conservancy preserve called Camassia. It is walking distance from our school and we are able to see more evidence of basalt flows, as the entire preserve is on top of columnar basalt with much of it exposed. The soil here is very thin and students are able to see how plants have adapted to this condition. They love being able to compare this to the coastal forest they were in just the day before. They are always amazed that the same basalt flow they are standing on stretches all the way to the coast and is contained in the cliffs they were able to see the prior day. It begins to give them a sense of connectivity and the magnitude of the volcanic events of the past. While we are there, we take the temperature of a pond and get a water sample to test for pH and turbidity when we return to school. Testing the water sample gives our students time to practice using the testing equipment and to recall 3rd grade learning around salmon and what they need (as far as water conditions) to survive.
The next two days of our outdoor experience is spent on the road in the Columbia River Gorge. We take our 4th graders on an overnight trip to see more evidence of the basalt flows, learn about the Missoula Floods that shaped the gorge and our local valley, and to do more comparison of the plant and animal adaptations in yet a different environment. We spend time at a wildflower preserve, taking in the panoramic views of the gorge and identifying/sketching wildflowers. Students love identifying the flowers with a plant identification book and trying to figure out their adaptations. This area is quite windy and exposed to the weather being high up at the top of the gorge, so students get to see waxy leaf coatings, things growing low to the ground and even some hairy leaves. They compare that to the large, flat, shiny leaves they had seen in days prior in the coastal forest.
We also go to a local museum to hear and see a program about the Missoula Floods. This allows students to get more information from an expert about how the gorge they have just viewed came to be. We spend time at the museum exploring the Ice Age exhibit and taking a guided walk around the grounds to hear more about and see native flora and fauna.
That night we go to pizza and swim at a local pool before crashing on the floor of a grade school.
The next day we spend time at Hood River Middle School hearing from Michael Becker and his science students about how they are continuing to strive to create a more sustainable space for learning. They have an amazing greenhouse that is ever evolving to include new and innovative things. The middle school students give our 4th graders a tour of the area, including a discussion about the geothermal energy system under the soccer field. This is a very inspiring part of the trip and spurs our students on to thinking about ways we can improve what we do at our own school.
When we leave the middle school, we head to a local falls area and go on a great hike. Students see and point out evidence of basalt flows, erosion, plant and animal adaptations and enjoy the outdoors. We also find a spot to pull out water testing equipment and run stations for students to test pH, temperature, and turbidity, as well as to collect and identify macroinvertebrate samples. This is always a highlight of the trip! At the end of our water stations, students make a determination about whether or not this stream is a healthy one for fish using their data as evidence.
Our trip is capped off by a visit to Bonneville Dam to see the fish ladders and learn how electricity of created from water flow.
Overall, we have a great trip and students gain so much! They are able to see and touch things that they have studied in science class. They make connections, ask lots of great questions and enjoy the beauty of our natural spaces. We hear back from many students and parents that they re-visit many of the locations as a family at a later time and that the students are great tour guides with lots of information to share.
As curriculum and teaching assignments have changed, we have tweaked this trip for 5th grade. We are able to review past learning about salmon, plant and animal adaptations, and geology, as well as focus on new learning about energy. This year it is a two-night, three-day trip that will include many of the above activities, but will also include a day that has a visit to the Biglow Wind Farm in Wasco to see windmills in action, and a visit to White River Falls State Park to see a now defunct powerhouse at the base of a falls. We will also spend time at a local business in Hood River learning about their commitment to renewable energy and seeing their solar roof. Our students have been researching renewable energy in class and this will give them opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors while seeing things they have previously read about.
We feel these experiences are important for students now more than ever. In an increasingly digital world, it could be easy for students to be indoors more and pay less attention to the natural world around them. In addition to making the classroom learning feel more real, these trips get kids out, get them active, and help them connect to the wonder and beauty of our natural world.
STEM Field Study Kits for All!
by Martin E. Fortin, Jr.
AWSP Director of Learning Centers
arly in my career as a science teacher I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by the famous Princeton professor Dr. Herbert Alyea. His demonstrations were so legendary he was referred to as Dr. Boom. In fact, he loudly ignited some gases for us during the lecture. But I better knew of his creation of the TOPS program. The acronym stood for The Overhead Projection Series. Dr. Alyea was convinced that the best way to learn was for each student to have their own miniature lab kit that they could use at their desk to follow along with his demonstrations. This kit did not involve explosions but did replicate real lab investigations. I still have my kit I received the day of that seminar.
As a former 7th grade life science teacher I knew that given the assignment, students can find almost anything in the natural environment. I would announce a weekly field trip just out the doors of my classroom. The students were charged with finding mosses, ferns, grasses, insects, or whatever natural science unit we were studying. They never failed in finding the samples I requested. It wasn’t until I began my tenure at the Cispus Learning Center that I realized we could replicate the professor’s ideas for field study in an inexpensive way. Dr. Alyea’s concept of each student having the means for hands-on investigations inspired me to develop a field kit for outdoor study.
As an ASB advisor I was very familiar with the contents of the catalogs from the Oriental Trading Company and US Toy. Combing through those catalogs I discovered inexpensive items that could replicate those pieces of equipment commonly used in a formal laboratory. Among other things I filled the study kit with a pair of scissors, a hand lens, a ruler, and hand-made meter tape, a plant press, study plot place-markers, and tools to hold or probe those interesting items found outdoors.
Here’s the breakdown:
$0.15 Small writing pad for taking notes
$0.05 Magnifying glass for examining items
$0.02 Small Cardboard Plant press for collecting samples
$0.05 Cardboard Clipboard & Produce bag rain cover
$0.125 Ruler for measuring
$0.125 Scissors for collecting samples
$0.02 Popsicle sticks for marking sites
$0.06 Small plastic bags for collecting items
$0.02 Acid/ base indicator strips from a spa supply company
$0.15 Crayons for sketching, recording, marking
$0.05 Plastic Scratcher for digging
$0.01 Toothpicks for separating or holding down items
$0.00 Flexible measuring tape made from back-to-back masking tape and marked by students
$0.04 Zip lock bag to keep everything together-marked with the owner’s name.
$0.08 Sales tax
Some other almost free options I found along the way:
Plastic picnic knife for separating items, Old cassette tape boxes for collecting and storing specimens, Paper plates as an examination platform, Coffee filters for separating liquids.
I believe using readily available and inexpensive tools to encourage and nurture the exploration of our natural environment is an effective approach to learning. Especially valuable when the student is alongside their teacher using the same tools. Dr. Alyea once said “A good teacher is one who explains a concept; a better teacher is one who asks questions about the concept; and the best teacher is one who demonstrates the concept then solicits the questions from the students.”
With this Field STEM kit every student can have their own personal set of tools to investigate the natural environment. Even better- they can take them home at the end of the school year and continue to explore the out of doors wherever they go.
Martin Fortin is director of the Chewelah and Cispus outdoor Learning Centers in Washington. He was a science techer for 16 years, and was given the President’s Award from the Environmental Education Association of Washington.
The Transformative Power of Wilderness Education
A graduate student finds an understanding of the effect of wilderness on the development of young people’s sense of self-worth
by Rory Crowley
n July 7th, 2001 I lie huddled in my sleeping bag, shivering as I survey the cloud of water vapor that floats above my head. It’s 2:00 am and sleep is distant; I realize that I am unprepared for my first solo backpack. I’ve brought a waif of a summer sleeping bag into the high-country, and as snow covers my lonely two-man tent and the ground steals away the heat, I shiver. The Nalgene bottle under my knees is cold; I pull it out, undo the top and gulp the cool water. I open the tent door and pour the rest of the water into my camp stove. I am boiling water for the fourth time tonight; I watch the blue flame in anticipation. I need a warm water bottle under my knees to keep the night bearable.
“What am I doing here?” I say to myself, echoing what I’ve been thinking all night. I have come to Cathedral Provincial Park to test myself but I have also come in search of wildness, to find something that a city cannot supply. I just don’t know what I seek.
The simplicity of wilderness travel attracted me to strap on the hiking boots for that solo and embark on a career in environmental education. Carrying everything I need to survive a week, and leaving behind the overabundance of technology and distraction. Wilderness travel requires simplicity because of the load limits of the human body. Furthermore, wilderness travel resigns the distractions of the modern world to the subconscious. Gary Snyder eloquently warns people who seek the wild that
“Wilderness can be a ferocious teacher, rapidly stripping down the inexperienced or the careless. It is easy to make a mistake that will bring one to an extremity. Practically speaking, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.” (Snyder 1990, 23).
During my first solo I was searching for my self-definition as an adult. Self-definition — ”defining, or interpreting ourselves to others, so that people in our social environment have a clearer understanding of who we are”— is a constant evaluation to see if our actions reflect our values (Williams et al. 1989, 170). I wanted to exhibit the “Mountain Man” persona as a symbol of my personal values. But there is also a cultural aspect; this self-image is desirable because the natural wonders of the wilderness are symbols spiritually and aesthetically unique to my Euro American culture. I came to Cathedral Provincial Park with a very anthropogenic goal. Unfortunately, like me at twenty-one, many “weekend warriors” do not go beyond the personal benefits of wilderness — views, peaks, the workout — disregarding their interconnections to the natural world. Learning is facilitated in wilderness when “the learning is necessary to solve basic problems of comfort and even survival” (Miles, 1987, 7). However, wilderness education needs to be sure to go “beyond the simple act of holding classes in the great outdoors” and embrace the experience and personal growth possibilities (Grumbine, 1999, 125).
Much of my summer (2004) was spent in the backcountry in North Cascades National Park. I was at the halfway point of a graduate program jointly administered by Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University and North Cascades Institute. The Master’s of environmental education is centered on place-based education, leadership and non-profit administration gave me the opportunity to teach in the backcountry while fulfilling course requirements.
During a 6-night canoe camp, my co-leader and I took a group of participants, aged 14-16, up a difficult hike to the top of Desolation Peak and a fire lookout. Rob, the oldest and most experienced participant who had attended two previous camps, set out to try and summit Desolation, a peak that his earlier instructors had never attempted with their groups. After ten minutes of strenuous hiking Rob sat down for a drink of water. Gasping he said, “I am never hiking that fast again, it sucked.” At this point I thought to myself, “okay, I guess we won’t make it to the top, but we’ll make a day hike out of it.” I was wrong. As the group quickly started leaving Rob behind, I sent Rob’s best friend in the camp, Stan, back to hike with him. Stan talked Rob all the way to the top, reaching the lookout just thirty minutes after the rest of the group. The weary hikers were greeted by a fire raging in the distance, the lookout making her daily observations, a helicopter flying through the smoke, and the ghost of past lookouts.
About a month after the trip I received an e-mail from Rob’s father. Rob was doing really great in alternative school this year, especially in English class. Our lessons during the hike had centered on Jack Kerouac, who spent the summer of 1956 as Desolations Peak’s fire lookout. Our lessons, combined with the accomplishment of reaching the summit had convinced Rob to read both Desolation Angels and Dharma Bums. Most importantly, he had started writing. Although Rob said he hated hiking at the time, I am happy to hear that after some reflection he has incorporated some positives from the day into his daily life.
Rob was receptive to coming to the wilderness and striving towards self-improvement. His actions exemplified this commitment. The wilderness of Ross Lake differs from Rob’s daily hectic life in urban America. Contrast and attunement during time in the wilderness humbled and empowered Rob.
With increased visitation to wilderness areas as population grows, stress on our protected areas increases. As a result, programs that do not depend on the pristine wilderness should take place elsewhere. But if the program depends on the healing and restorative powers of wilderness the activity will be inferior elsewhere. In my opinion, Rob likely would not have received the same personal benefits if the canoe camp was on a local lake and the hike was on a less significant peak near his home.
During the summer of 2004 I also began to explore what it means to be a mentor and a facilitator. I tried to make the experiences I led as valuable as possible, exposing youth to wilderness’s restorative capabilities, while modeling positive behavior in the backcountry. Although a recent resident of the North Cascades, I have further sought to exhibit the qualities Barry Lopez suggests in his essay “American Geographies,”
It resides with men and women more or less sworn to a place, who abide there, who have a feel for the soil and history, for the turn of the leaves and night sounds. Often they are glad to take the outlanders in tow… they are nearly flawless in the respect for these places they love. Their knowledge is intimate rather than encyclopedic, human but not necessarily scholarly, it rings with concrete detail of experience. (Lopez, 1998, 132-133).
It was in this vein that I set out on successive hikes up Sourdough Mountain with participants from the Washington Conservation Corps.
“What are you doing Cait?” I yelled as I looked back to see Cait walking backwards down the trail. Cait, a member of the Washington Conservation Corps, was close to finishing a long day-hike to Sourdough Mountain lookout which included a talk with Northwest poet and fire lookout Tim McNulty.
“It feels like needles are poking into my toes! Like a thousand needles!” she shouted over her shoulder as she limped down the trail to catch up with the waiting group. “My stupid boots are cutting into my toes. Walking backwards makes it feel better.”
“What’s wrong? Do you want me to check for blisters?” I probed. We were still at least an hour from the trailhead.
“No, let’s just get down,” she said, tears swelling in her red eyes. “How long until we get down?”
“Ah… thirty-forty minutes…if you walk facing forward” I fibbed. We continued down the trail from Sourdough, one of the steepest and hardest hikes in North Cascades National Park, but also one of the most rewarding. From the fire lookout you can see six different river drainages; Ross, Ruby, Thunder, Stetattle, Big Beaver and the lower Skagit. We had an amazing day in the high country: blue skies, mountain flowers, views, poetry and writing advice. An hour and a half later we reached the vehicles and Cait immediately stripped off her dust-covered boots. Her toes were red, raw and inflamed but with no noticeable blisters. Her boots must really be terrible. Now in sandals, Cait soothed her toes in the cool river before we got into the trucks to go back to camp. Her feet will be fine tomorrow.
Back at camp I noticed that Cait was not at dinner. After climbing over 5,000 feet in five miles I expected everyone to be devouring their food. I tracked her down walking back from a payphone, her eyes red and swollen. She had phoned her boyfriend because she could not wait to tell her partner about her amazing day; so amazing she could not wait another minute to share it with him. As an aspiring writer, Cait met one of her idols and it has had a profound impact on her. It was at that point that I realized I had facilitated a day that Cait would remember for a long time. Cait’s amazing day can be summarized as experiential wilderness education.
Cait saw the hike up Sourdough was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Author Tim McNulty was in the lookout crafting his work. While at the lookout she observed his everyday tasks of a lookout. Cait understood the purpose of a writer spending time in seclusion and wilderness. Tim gave her advice of different techniques to make her writing better.
Since our hike Cait has had the opportunity to independently write and apply what she had learned. In a chance meeting she indicated her writing had never been better and that the advise from Sourdough was very helpful.
Cait and Rob exemplify the amazing metaphoric benefits to wilderness education. They have been able to apply the positives from the wilderness to their everyday lives. My time as wilderness educator has also been metaphoric for me as a leader. I knew wilderness could impact someone in a positive way, but I needed to actually witness a transformative experience to fully believe in the benefits of wilderness education.
Learning and teaching during my time working with North Cascades Institute causes me to reflect on my time huddled in my cold sleeping bag in the Wilderness of Cathedral Provincial Park. I was grasping for a connection to nature. The myth of the “Mountain Man” brought me to the wilderness, but the effect has been something deeper. For me wilderness has become a metaphor of a deeper connection to the land, a source of inspiration and, most importantly, a positive influence on me as a member of society, a citizen and a resident of the earth.
Grumbine, E.R., “Going to Basho’s Pine” ISLE, 6(2), 1990.
Krumpe, E.E., “Managing Wilderness for Education and Development.” Preparing to Manage Wilderness in the 21st Century, U.S. Forest Service, 1990.
Lopez, B.H., “The American Geographies” Barry Lopez: About This Life, Toronto: Random House, 1998.
Miles, J.C., “Wilderness as a Learning Place.” The Journal of Environmental Education, 18(2), 1986-1987.
Miles, J.C., “Wilderness as Healing Place.” The Journal of Experiential Education, 10(3), 1987.
Snyder, G., “The Etiquette of Freedom.” The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco: North point Press, 1990
Spray, R.H. & Weingert, P.D., “The Wilderness Environment: Training Wilderness Managers.” Wilderness Benchmark 1988, U,S, Forest Service, 1989.
Williams, D.R. et. al., “The Role of Wilderness in Human Development.” Wilderness Benchmark 1988, U.S. Forest Service, 1989.
Rory Crowley was a Graduate Student with Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University and the North Cascades Institute. Funding was provided by the Skagit Environment Endowment Fund who support conservation, stewardship and education in an around the Washington and British Columbia’s Skagit Watershed.
Wenatchee School District’s Case Study of Science Field Experiences
by Susan Ballinger and Karen Rutherford
his year (2005) in the shrub-steppe eco-region of rural Eastern Washington, over 3600 elementary students, teachers, and adult volunteers will spend a wonderful day of adventure and learning outdoors, at a science field experience. Kindergarteners pound leaf chlorophyll into fabric, 1st graders capture insects amidst blooming wildflowers, 2nd graders use iodine to measure sugar content in ripening apples, 3rd graders wade in icy waters looking for aquatic insects, 4th graders build paper dams, and 5th graders climb a 1000-ft mountain, rewarded with an expansive view their valley home below.
All science field experiences take place within a 20-mile radius of city elementary schools. Each experience is co-sponsored by local organizations. In the Wenatchee School District, a field experience differs significantly from a just-for-fun “field trip.” This place-based field experience is a relevant, multidisciplinary day of adventure and learning in a local outdoor setting. There are two distinct parts to a field experience, both tied to local natural resources:
1. In-class curriculum integrating science and social studies concepts
2. On-site field curriculum, applying classroom concepts with hands-on activities.
Here is our story of how weíve worked from the inside of our school district to make significant connections with the natural and cultural landscape of our collective home.
As field teachers, we try to fight the desire to verbally import knowledge and instead allow students time and space to discover using their senses.
The Wenatchee School District (WSD) is located along the Columbia River in the state’s geographic center with a rural metropolitan population of 50,000.
Over 7,000 students are served at seven elementary schools, three middle schools, an alternative high school, and a 4A high school. Our K-5th student population is 55% Hispanic with 55% Free/Reduced lunch poverty levels.
Six years ago, the Wenatchee School district embraced a vision to connect classroom science curriculum to the local landscape of our watershed and cultural community. At that time, our assistant superintendent, Dr. Jeanine Butler, wanted our district to comply with our state’s (unfunded) mandate to provide environmental education, K-12. A wonderful model existed in the Leavenworth Salmonfest, serving all 3rd grade students in our region. This outdoor festival co-sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service included teacher training for classroom pre-work lessons. Student come to Salmonfest with foundational knowledge and participates in hands-on activities at the festival. Initially, only schools that had strong parent support organizations could afford to pay for school bus transportation to Salmonfest. Dr. Butler recognized the need for equity and strategically budgeted bus transportation money for all schools into the science curriculum. This budget decision significantly addresses the issue of environmental justice. In our district, we see a high correlation between poverty and ethnicity in student populations, which is reflected in our low scores on state standardized testing. Among our 7 elementary schools, a wide disparity between overall ethnic and poverty levels is found between buildings. Schools with high poverty rates have fewer resources available to provide student trips. With a district-level initiative, all students, regardless of income or ethnicity, have this opportunity and an even-playing field for learning. For science field experiences, district-budgeted bus transportation money has been the key to serving all schools.
The community college arboretum is the location for the kindergartner Wenatchee Tree Walk and college students work as volunteer teachers.
CREATIVE FUNDING and SUPPORTIVE PARTNERS
Community partners provide the key help needed to launch a science field experience. For example, the USDA Forest Service spearheaded a successful grant-writing effort that enabled the purchase of supplies and development of the 5th grade field experience curriculum. Our 4th grade field experience found significant funding support at our local Public Utility District for 25 classroom kits, valued at $400 each. They are our hosts for our annual watershed-based River of Power experience at Rocky Reach hydroelectric dam. Our community college arboretum is the location for our kindergartener Wenatchee Tree Walk and college students work as volunteer teachers. Our local museum provided relevant local history resources and staffing for many grade level experiences. Members of local non-profit conservation organizations volunteer each year as field teachers. Our local Arbor Day Committee purchased non-fiction tree books for 25 classroom kits. As part of their coursework, Central Washington University pre-service teachers lead groups of 5th graders each May. This broad base of community support has institutionalized field experiences in both the school district and the partner organization.
The key to effective use of community agencies and organizations has been the use of a school district coordinator. The coordinator initiates the contacts, ensures good communication, and follows through with strategically worded thank you letters sent to organization leaders and local newspaper letters-to-the-editor.
Most of our community partners have organizational education goals and our district curriculum structure allows them to concentrate their efforts annually. For example, instead of responding to year-round requests from individual teachers to give tours or be guest speakers, local research scientists from Washington State University know that every September, they will teach stations as part of the Awesome Apple Adventures, serving every 2nd grade student in our town in a concentrated manner.
IN-CLASS CURRICULUM- A FOUNDATION FOR THE FIELD
Teacher today are under great time pressures. Increased testing requirements means even less class time is available for extra activities or field trips. By using a district science field experience coordinator, classroom teachers can focus solely on teaching. The district coordinator designs, and produces an in-class curriculum. With this, we provide a classroom kit filled with all the materials needed to teach the classroom field experience lessons, from videos to local maps, books, and supplies. For example, our second teachers receive an art kit with craft supplies necessary to make anatomically correct insects. This pre-work art lesson prepares students to learn in the field where they use beating trays to find aphids and moths living in apple trees. Another example is our linkage of local cultural history to watershed concepts when our fourth graders view a vintage 1950s film documenting the building of Rocky Reach Dam, prior to their visit.
A pre-work art lesson prepares students to learn in the field where they use beating trays to find aphids and moths living in apple trees.
Seven years ago, we adopted a national FOSS curriculum for K-5th grades. This broad-based national curriculum needed a local focus to become relevant, interesting, and meaningful to our teachers. Teachers have no time to research local connections and then integrate this into the adopted curriculum. For example, our fifth grade teachers were struggling to teach the FOSS landform kit topographic map lessons, using a Mt. Shasta map, and many found the stream tables to be baffling. Most had never heard of Mt. Shasta and had never worked with a topographic map themselves. Many teachers are new to our region and had limited knowledge of the local environment and landforms. Teachers simply didn’t realize that our region was a topographic wonderland. Views of Mt. Rainer, catastrophic Ice Age floods, and the Columbia River Watershed were literally within a short bus ride of every classroom. As curriculum designers, we realized we had to start with adult-level learning as a key part of our trainings, giving foundational knowledge to our teachers. At the training, our teachers heard a respected local geologist lecture about our valley’s remarkable erosional features. Suddenly, stream tables are seen not as sandboxes, but as working models of the Columbia River that bisects our town. The FOSS curriculum suddenly had connections to the local environments, so teachers saw the connection between science and experience.
Classroom teachers, librarians, and music specialists spend one month preparing students using science lessons, integrated with reading, writing, art, music, and social studies. Our 4th and 5th grade curriculums include a student reader containing local artist biographies, memoirs, interpretive sign texts, song lyrics, poems, legends, radio plays, and newspaper articles. Classroom teachers have the option to teach non-fiction reading lessons using original source material directly linked to the science lessons. After the experience, students reflect on their experiences and new knowledge by drawing, composing poetry, producing a play, and or by writing essays as culminating classroom projects.
Local research scientists from Washington State University teach stations as part of the Awesome Apple Adventures.
SCIENCE FIELD EXPERIENCE — THE DAY!
Coordinators, not teachers, set up the logistics of the experience, so teachers can instead focus on preparing their students to learn in the field. Coordinators write and prepare hands-on field station curriculum, schedule the buses, recruit station teachers, and devise class rotation schedules. The coordinators take care of the nuts-and-bolts of putting on a big event: making sure everyone can get to where need to be, drink, eat, use the bathroom, and stay safe. They make sure that schedules are fastened to clipboards, binder clips secure watercolor paper to lap easels, port-a-potties and hand-sanitizer are strategically placed, small digital clocks attached to clipboards, large water jugs are ready to refill water bottles, and first aid kits are on hand to handle skinned knees.
FIELD CURRICULUM-BUILDING ON CLASSROOM LEARNING
One of the most fun and creative parts of developing a science field experience is designing the outdoor learning stations. We aim to select activities that extend classroom learning, are best done outside, are too messy for the classroom, and that require special equipment. We assemble an array of visual aids and needed tools into a station kit that is delivered to the field location, ready to go. We often enlist the expertise of a scientist to help with the content of a field lesson. For example, several local wildlife biologists helped develop 5th grade stations called “Mule Deer/ Marmot.” and “Coyote/Cougar.” We use pelts, scat, prints, skulls, and photographs to compare and contrast the life history of these two sets of native mammal species.
We strive to offer an art or music station at each field experience. Art teachers develop the watercolor painting or pastel drawing lessons so that every student produces a masterpiece in the field that is later delivered to their classroom. Our music teachers have enthusiastically created music stations, teaching science content through finger-plays, songs, dances, and games. We provide classroom teachers with a music CD (recorded in-house) so students can start to learn the songs before coming to the field experience.
Each station lesson presentation is written as a “script” so that a non-scientist volunteer or paid teacher can successfully present the material with minimal preparation time. If a skilled professional is available as a station volunteer, we encourage them to modify and extend the lesson to best match their expertise. These scripts are modified and improved each year, using input from the field teachers.
Teachers simply didn’t realize that the region was a topographic wonderland. Views of Mt. Rainier, catastrophic Ice Age floods, and the Columbia River Watershed were literally within a short bus ride of every classroom.
FIELD EXPERIENCE LOGISTICS
A critical element for success of a field experience is detailed event planning. Logistically, field experiences differ significantly in length, type of location, and structure. We try to match amount of time spent in the field with the developmental abilities of students. Kindergarten students spend only 2 hours on site, eliminating the need for eating, having lots of extra water available, and frequent bathroom stops within this time window. In contrast, our 5th graders spend 5-1/2 hours on site, hiking a steep trail, covering a roundtrip distance of three miles. We provide port-a-potties at 3 strategic points, lots of water, and schedule a 1/2 hour seated lunch break. While students rest at lunch, music teachers lead a camp song sing-a-long.
In-District partnerships are another key to our success. The most essential partnership has been between the two co-coordinators for field experiences. Both of us bring a different suite of skills to the tasks of curriculum and event design, event implementation, and last-minute problem-solving. It takes two coordinators to pull off each event, dealing with the last minute crisis that always arises. We do have stories to tell! Maybe you’d like to hear about the time a sudden gust of high winds blew over a port-a-pottie, with a child inside!
In designing the activities and the flow of the day in the field, we’ve borrowed what we call the “Disneyland principles.” To ensure that science learning can happen in the field:
1. Participants leave, wanting to come back because they didn’t get to do everything;
2. Music is embedded in the event;
3. Adequate food and drink are ensured;
4. A wide variety of offered activities; and
5. Something to take home to remember the experience.
What may look like a marketing plan, in reality has ensured a quality science learning experience for all ages of participants. It ensures a good flow of the day that taps into all the senses. We strive to create a scheduled day that runs smoothly with a balance of activities at a pace that isn’t rushed. At all of our experiences, student groups attend some, but not all learning stations. Many of students are dual-language learners so field learning activities involve touch, smell, and creation of art, singing, and movement. We strive to minimize talk and maximize doing. As field teachers, we try to fight the desire to verbally impart knowledge and instead allow students time and space to discover using their senses. Simply being in an unfamiliar outdoor environment is very new to our mostly urban, poor children. We try to select field locations in public spaces so children can potentially return with their families.
We’ve discovered that field eperiences have woven a web-like interdependency between non-classroom employees and our classroom teachers in our school district.
We’ve discovered that field experience have woven a web-like interdependency between non-classroom employees and our classroom teachers in our school district. School nurses, warehouse managers, delivery truck drivers, building secretaries, food service workers and district office administrators all provide logistic support. We’ve also built partnerships with a corps of district substitute teachers who are hardy souls, willing to teach outdoors in all types of weather. We depend upon hired station teachers who can modify and adjust their teaching when high winds spread materials far and wide, a massive bloody nose erupts, or when a rambunctious high school helper decides to capture a bull snake. Community volunteers, many of whom are retired, and will likely vote in the next school bond levy, have positive, one-on-one contact with students and are introduced to the diversity of our student population. Many of our volunteers return year after year. We often need to provide special transportation for senior citizens and some teachers in order to get them to their teaching locations. We strongly encourage pregnant teachers to take advantage of our transportation offers!
Creating a sustainable field experience program is important to us. Often, outdoor education programs depend upon the charisma and energy of a few key people and once these people move on, the program dies. By fully integrating our field experiences into classroom curriculum, they have become part of the schoolís culture. Students and teachers alike look forward to their annual adventure in the field. District funding ensures that staff are dedicated to refurbishing kits and implementing six yearly experiences.
An important key to our success is that we’ve taken the FOSS and STC national general science curriculums and made them place-based for both social studies and science. Integration has helped our teachers see the “why” of teaching science because it is locally relevant and fun. We’ve brought science “home.”
Karen Rutherford is the K-8th Science Resource Coordinator for Wenatchee School District. Over the past 6 years, Karen has implemented and maintained over 270 FOSS and STC kits. Karen has a strong background in Marketing and Business to compliment her passion for science education.
Susan Reynolds Ballinger has a M.S. Education and M.A. Biology and works as a consultant to Wenatchee School District as the Science Field Experience Coordinator. Susan’s former pursuits include middle school science teaching, biology field work, and a variety of natural history interpretation projects.
For Science Field Experiences, Karen and Susan have worked together for over five years on grant-writing, curriculum development, kit assembly, and event coordination.