Ear to the Ground: Interviews with PNW Environmental Educators

Ear to the Ground: Interviews with PNW Environmental Educators


Robert Steelquist,
Coastal Explorer, Environmental Educator (2021)

Jane Tesner Kleiner (2021)
Greening the Schoolgrounds

Gary Dorr (Standing Red Bear) (2018)
Reclaiming a Culture through the Traditional Canoe

Monica Nissen (2015)
2015 Environmental Educator of the Year (CBEEN)

Ryan Monger (2016)
Sultan WA High School Science Teacher

Rus Higley (2016)
2016 Marine Education Classroom Teacher of the Year (NAME)

Sue Staniforth (2013)
Environmental Education Consultant, North Saanich, British Columbia

Ralph Harrison (2013)
Science and Math Institute


Sara Focht (2013)
Idaho Non-formal Educator of the Year

Mike Town (2011)
Passionate about Environmental Education

Ned Buckingham (2010)
Olympic Park Institute

Saul Weisberg (2010)
North Cascades Institute

Ear to the Ground: Jane Tesner Kleiner

Ear to the Ground: Jane Tesner Kleiner

Jane Tesner Kleiner is a Registered Landscape Architect (RLA), ecologist and environmental educator with over 25 years of experience in design, project management and program coordination. She loves working with schools and communitiy partners to create spaces and programs to get kids outside, connecting with nature.

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started in this field?
I found of a love of working with school kids as a volunteer naturalist for the Ann Arbor Public School’s Environmental Education program. We took kids out on fields trips for all 1st – 5th graders. We were so lucky to have lots of natural areas, including Metro Parks, wetlands, streams and gravel pits. Then I met the amazing Rick Plecha (elementary science teacher) at Field Elementary School in Canton, MI and we started designing green schoolyards in his district. My work in Michigan focused on watershed improvements. When I moved to Washington in 2006, I started volunteering at my son’s school when they wanted to build a garden. The district, knowing my professional background, asked for a master plan to make sure they had a guiding tool for the garden improvements. Over 9 years, we have built 7 phases of projects at that school, including sensory, butterfly, accessible play, nature play, imagination play and outdoor classrooms.

Do you recall anything from your childhood that may have played a role in your becoming an environmental educator? What was your earliest connection to nature?
I was so lucky as a kid to grow up in a huge subdivision that had creeks and forests. My brother and I would roam the forests and floodplains all the time, especially winter in Michigan with snow and ice. We also had a huge hill in the backyard for sledding. We didn’t take many vacations as a kid, but I spent most of my childhood roaming Bell Creek, the forests and floodplains.

What has been a particularly memorable moment in your career?
By combining my landscape architecture skills with my love for ecology, I have been very fortunate to have worked on some great projects! Most of my work has been urban/suburban so there has always be a “people” connection that allowed for interpretive signage, places to explore and sit and observe the wildlife. While the bigger projects, like the Rouge River Oxbox restoration at The Henry Ford museum and the visitor improvements at Salmon-Morgan Creeks nature area are great, it is working with schools on their small gardens, habitats and projects where the kids take ownership and pride that make such a huge difference.

What challenges (professionally) have you had to overcome?
Great question…..as every job has its challenges. I have worked for large and small design firms, as well as local governmental agencies. One of the challenges is educating the budget folks that adding public amenities to some projects make a huge difference for folks visiting the areas. Also, finding a balance with the wonderful grounds and maintenance crews who have a lot on their plate with limited resources, while we add more gardens and natural areas. One great outcome of COVID is that people are really understanding the need and value for nature. Before COVID, green schoolyards could be seen as “Oh, that is nice and all but not mandatory.” We now know that having all types of gardens really make a difference well beyond academics.

What have been your greatest rewards?
Introducing kids to nature! So many kids I have worked with have lots of fears about nature and don’t have a lot of understanding about plants, animals, habitats, etc. My greatest rewards are when they get to see the result of their hard work, flowers blooming, vegetables are ripe enough to harvest, seed collecting, etc. When kids know that I can trust them with tools and then they can go get the job down, they are so excited. When they bring their families on the weekends because they are so excited, that is the added bonus.

What are some of the best resources you’ve found for the work you do?
We are lucky in southwest Washington to have lots of great partners working with schools. We have formed a coalition called the Clark County Nature Network where we meet to understand what the organizations or agencies are doing and how we can partner to make a difference with schools. Some organizations are great for plantings, trees and stewardship so kids get lots of hands on project based learning. Then they get to watch their projects grow. Other partners help with the planning and design of Green Schoolyards and can help get projects in the ground. A local arborist can help salvage trees to be repurposed for nature playgrounds. Our urban forestry can help add shade trees to playgrounds which are usually lacking any nature. We are starting to look at project opportunities to connect high school CTE partners to get gardens in at elementary schools, as they have the green houses and wood shops.

What project(s) are you currently working on?
It has been exciting for our two largest local school districts, Evergreen and Vancouver,which passed capital bonds several years ago. Those funds have provided for lots of improvements at existing schools and over a dozen new and/or replacement schools. I have been incredibly fortunate to work either as the owner’s representative on the projects or lead landscape architect on a few. This has allowed me to bring my knowledge of Green Schoolyards to the table and work with all of the staff and design teams to rethink school campus design. Most of the new schools have working gardens, increased native habitat for lots of species, including birds and butterflies, outdoor classrooms, accessible pathways, nature play areas, rock cycle gardens, meadows and interpretive signage. The projects include lots of natural colors, textures, plant types and features that haven’t been done at local schools. And the response has been great! If teachers want to teach about parts of the plant, they now have lots of different kinds to choose from on campus. There is now a diversity of colors and patterns to study art or writing. And lots of paths to go for walks to support social-emotional learning through the natural areas.
I am also the lead coordinator for the Clark County Nature Network working with local partners to connect our community to nature. Our partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Refuge has stepped up to provide funding to expand our service to the community to reach more families and partners.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
As we know, there have been lots of pros and cons to COVID impacts. As a mom with two school age kids, my time has been more limited for work during the day as I help with school. While I have loved all of the time with my kids, there are also been other opportunities. I have been on some great Zoom calls with partners from around the world, like the BioBlitz program that covers ALL schools in England….so cool. There have been so many great collaborations with Green Schoolyard partnerships. I supported the Green Schoolyard America COVID 19 response to create on-line resources [https://www.greenschoolyards.org/covid-learn-outside]. Many of the resources are now available to schools who want to create and use outdoor classrooms as part of their solutions to getting kids safely back into school.

What inspires you now? What people have inspired you?
The research is so abundant now on the benefits of nature for our overall health, it isn’t hard to make the case to add nature back into our communities. I am inspired by the teachers who can’t wait to add more features, the kids who can’t wait to show you the caterpillar they discovered and the families that spend more time outside now that they know where to go and what to do with their kids. My colleagues are definitely my current inspirations as they have retooled how they deliver their work, due to COVID, to still reach kids with on-line learning and inspire kids to explore their own yards, schools and neighborhoods.

Who are your environmental heroes?
I have always been inspired by Rachel Kaplan, professor from the University of Michigan, who helped guide my graduate school work with schoolyards and her book Design with People in Mind. The writings of Rachel Carson, walking the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and Mardy Murie about her time in Alaska, are my go to readings. I was also inspired by Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. And then there are the biggies, like David Attenborough and Jane Goodall……what can I say….they are amazing.

What books are currently on your nightstand?
I am currently reading David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. It feels so imperative to get kids to know their local landscapes, to understand what birds, insects and plants are here and why they are important. As a parent, I want my kids to know and understand what we see everyday.

Do you have favorite places to go when you need to connect with nature?
Oh yes! I am a big fan of those little known places, like the back trails along the Salmon Creek, the long trails at Vancouver Lake and Lacamas Lake here in Vancouver. My ideal adventures are to the Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier trails, especially up in the alpine meadows. They take your breath away…..I could just sit up there for days!

Are you hopeful about the future?
Oh yes! There are so many talented people working on the Greening of Schoolyard front, that I know we are making a difference and this work matters! So many partners are rethinking their approach for diversity, equity and inclusion, I have faith in their ability to connect with even more families. And our local schools have put their efforts behind sustainable landscapes that are more natural. Growing up in nature, I had the joy of wandering the woods for hours and sitting in meadows in the fall opening milkweed seed pods, just to watch the seeds float away. Robert Michael Pyle said at the UERC conference last March, that kids are facing the extinction of experience. This really stuck with me. My job is to help recreate spaces to allow kids the experiences that I had everyday. At one local school, we were able to create a 1-acre meadow…..a first for the district. I can’t wait for students to have the opportunity to just sit in the middle and listen to the wind blowing through the grasses and the endless parade of cirtters calling that space home.

Ear to the Ground: Robert Steelquist

Ear to the Ground: Robert Steelquist

Robert Steelquist: Coastal Explorer

Robert Steelquist is a native Pacific Northwest writer, photographer, naturalist, and environmental educator with a 40-year career introducing learners to the nature of the Northwest. He has led hundreds on nature walks, backpacking trips, tall ship trainings, river floats, teacher workshops, archaeology field schools, and other outdoor adventures. His public service includes work with the National Park Service, Washington Department of Wildlife, Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries, Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve and as a volunteer wilderness ranger with the US Forest Service. He is author of 13 books, including The Northwest Coastal Explorer, Timber Press, 2016. He lives in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains, near Blyn, Washington.


Tell us a little about yourself? How did you get started in EE?
I began my natural resources career on the business end of a Pulaski, working trails in the North Cascades, Pasayten Wilderness and Olympic National Park. After a serious back injury I had to find a job that connected my love of wild places to an income in a way that didn’t involve rain gear 10 days at a time. Journalism and environmental sciences came together for me naturally. Writing, interpretation and environmental education followed. Between writing books and public service I was lucky and found the right livelihood.

Do you recall anything from your childhood that may have played a role in your becoming an environmental educator?
As a kid I lived on the ragged edge of suburbia outside of Portland. West and north and south of us were orchards, woodlots, farm fields, oak groves, slow creeks, farm ponds and hills with views to the distant Cascades. My mother neglected us in just the right ways and my childhood span of personal geography was broad. Anywhere I could go on foot or on a bike and be back by dinner was on my mental map. That included a good chunk of Washington County. That sense of discovery, the curiosity it provoked and the feeling of belonging to a place, I later realized, is the essence of environmental education. Being able to communicate that and engender the same excitement in learners was as addictive as experiencing it myself as a child.

Where has your career path taken you?
Not surprisingly, full circle. During my first summers after retirement I volunteered for the Forest Service as a Wilderness Ranger in the Pasayten Wilderness, where I worked trails in 1975. The isolation, exertion, importance of the cause—all the things that inspired me in my 20s—have held their attraction into my 60s. Whether it’s a sentimental re-enactment of a formative experience, or the aspirational far end of that experience’s influence, I’m not sure. Actually, I’d cop to either.

In several of your jobs, you administered grants for EE. Looking back, do you think they made a difference?
I never looked at the money itself as what made a difference. The Puget Sound Water Quality Authority PIE grants and the NOAA B-WET funds took the risk away from innovation and novel partnerships and sharpened methods and priorities among environmental educators. The success of those programs begat more success, ultimately enabling local EE organizations to successfully grow and own that success. I think the money improved the practices of educators and was a catalyst to new and perhaps unlikely partnerships but the credit really belongs to the EE community, not the money itself.

What was a particularly memorable moment in your career?
Diving the Deepworker one-person submersible in a NOAA/National Geographic project in 1999 was pretty cool. Dr. Sylvia Earle insisted that NOAA train and dive marine educators in every National Marine Sanctuary. Being alone and untethered at 300 feet off the Olympic Coast, then turning the lights off and experiencing full darkness was beautiful. When the lights came back up, I was surrounded by rockfish that quickly fled the brightness.

You are semi-retired. What projects are you currently working on?
Although I’ve had to take a break from traveling, in my free time I am working on a multi-year photographic journey with sandhill cranes of the Pacific Flyway. Their range extends from California’s Central Valley to the Kenai and Alaska peninsulas. Our west coast birds don’t get the attention or ink of Central Flyway cranes. Their breeding areas are remote. Aside from a few well-known staging and feeding areas used in migration and winter, they slip by us largely unseen. Little tracking data exist. They raise interesting questions of past population bottlenecks and glacial refugia. Besides, they are spectacular birds, big, loud, social and beautiful.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
Covid-restlessness has pushed me back into service. I am currently working on a communication and interpretive planning process for Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. It’s short-term and I work remotely. Best of all, it has helped me focus my days and skills usefully to society. Mastering digital workarounds has also tickled some gray cells that might otherwise atrophy from too many naps.

How have you seen EE change over your career?
I think that between my childhood, when EE was viewed as “Conservation Education” and now, EE has been responsive to the need for more diverse and better STEM education. Geospacial Data Visualization didn’t exist then. Today’s second-grade girl on an EE outing is more likely to find a technical career if she’s inspired enough. And the challenge we’ve always faced—and still face—is inclusion and social equity. Consumers of mainstream outdoor experiences were predominantly White when I started, as were the faces of the educators. As issues of environmental justice became visible, the environmental movement as a whole had to reckon with racial and social exclusivity. Obviously we are not there yet. Cultures have always had their own ways of connecting with Nature—we’ve just been stuck on culturally constructed relationships comfortable in a White-dominated society. I believe there’s a mutually-beneficial relationship not merely “translating” White cultural views for non-Whites, but in looking for, learning from and honoring other traditions without falling back into the habit of appropriating them.

What’s the future of EE?
I don’t have a crystal ball. I think of the “future” of EE in the literal sense of the “future” that we educators project and how that has changed. On Earth Day ’70 environmentalists and soon-to-be environmental educators owned “The Future.” DDT was banned so that our children’s future included songbirds, NEPA was created so that future effects of growth and development would be understood and minimized, The Clean Water Act promised safe and abundant water. In other words, we could promise a better world because of our work. Somewhere in the project, things changed. When we discovered how out of whack things were truly getting, the news we delivered wasn’t as pretty. In 1982 I wrote a piece for the local daily newspaper on greenhouse gases and climate change and shrinking glaciers. Since then the messages just seem to have gotten worse and, frankly, we’ve scared people to death. We lost the rhetorical claim to the future. And we are seeing, daily, the consequences in our society’s state of denial. Worse, ideas aren’t the only things being denied, evidence-based Truth is at stake. The balance we, as environmental educators have to strike is to find in every learner or listener the creative moment when they connect with personal inspiration and their personal power. We can do that.

What inspires you now? What people have inspired you?
Ok, back to the bright side. I still chase experiences in the wild, among wild things. Being distracted by something purely beautiful in nature purges the cortisol buildup in my brain. Wildlife and landscape photography adds a much deeper dimension. You look for, and honor by that sustained glance, the world around you. As a visual narrator, you teach by showing—in this case a picture. But the artistic side of photography lets you also reveal something deeper than information. A fall of clouds pouring over a coastal ridge line, the wet hair on startled elk or the muscular strain of a jumping salmon carry power in a picture and, to me, force an emotional connection. I get to experience it and I get to pass it on.

Who are your environmental heroes?
It’s easy to list the famous people I was privileged to work with. Dr. Sylvia Earle; Jean-Michel Cousteau. They were examples that I learned from and tried to follow. From here on out though, my heroes have to be the ones stepping into this work at such a critical time. In my mind I see the faces of young people who participated in our programs, or who I chaperoned as a parent on field trips with my kids. Many of them are into their careers now—archaeologists, wildlife biologists, policy makers, artists, outdoor adventure leaders and environmental educators. I am as proud to have influenced them as to admit that I was influenced by those before me—none of us do this alone.

What books are currently on your nightstand?
On the level of pure intellectual exercise, I’m reading critical theory of photography—Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. In a more practical realm, I am re-reading Richard White’s Land Use, Environment and Social Change—the landmark environmental history of Whidbey Island. At the most practical level, I’m studying a PDF manual to my new Fitbit. It’s confusing as hell.

Do you have favorite places to go when you need to connect with nature?
Covid has restricted my movements quite a bit. Over the last few years I’ve enjoyed photographing wildlife and landscapes in the North America West and in Scandinavia. Recently, I connect with the homescape of my place. In March, I’ll visit a trillium that has made its appearance for me every year since 1973 when I first noticed it.

Are you hopeful about the future?
Being aware of seasons, especially with lengthening days, always makes me hopeful. Thanks for not asking last October.


Ear to the Ground – Ryan Monger, Sultan High School

Ear to the Ground – Ryan Monger, Sultan High School

An Interview with Ryan Monger

Winner of 2015 EPA Presidential Award for Innovation in Environmental Education


region_9_-ryan_monger_cropped_resizedRyan Monger, Sultan High School
Sultan, Washington

Ryan Monger, an environmental education teacher of students in grades 9 through 12 at Sultan High School in Sultan, Washington, uses this small, rural community as an outdoor classroom to encourage his students to explore science and learn about the local ecosystem. Students in Ryan’s classes participate in hands-on projects, including maintaining a salmon hatchery on the school’s grounds and releasing the fish into a local stream, surveying bacteria living on common surfaces such as those in the school’s weight room and on students’ cell phones, tapping maple trees at the school to make maple syrup, identifying trees and growing edible plants in the school greenhouse using environmentally sustainable, small-scale farming practices. Ryan’s students also participate in community-based projects, including environmental restoration projects to mitigate the impact of clear-cutting and the runoff of pollutants, and conducting an ongoing salmon study.

Ryan’s efforts to educate his students about the importance of environmental stewardship has garnered a great deal of support from the community. Local nurseries, hardware stores and seed companies donate supplies for the projects, and his students received recognition for their hard work when a local newspaper wrote a cover story on his unique curriculum. Students in his class are also working to integrate environmental education into the district’s preschool curriculum by involving preschoolers with the salmon hatchery project.

CLEARING: Tell us a little bit about yourself… how did you get started in environmental education?
Ryan Monger: I used to teach a pretty standard science curriculum, which was fun: explosions in chemistry and lasers in physics. However, when I got the job at Sultan, it was just Biology and there was not much money for fancy equipment. What we did have was a nearby river, a greenhouse, open fields, a salmon hatchery and a wonderful forest with trails behind the school. More than anything else, I was just taking advantage of the resources that I had.

CLEARING: Do you recall anything from your childhood growing up (vacations, time in the woods, etc.) that may have played a role in your becoming an environmental educator?
RM: When I was growing up I lived in the suburbs of Bellevue, but there happened to be a few acres of woods right next to our suburban home. I used to walk in those woods every day and I think they made a pretty profound impression on me. I loved catching frogs and salamanders, collecting plants, climbing trees and looking at forest flowers. Ever since, I have felt more at home and at peace in the woods than anywhere else. When I was about 10 the woods were developed into more suburban housing and I can remember feeling very angry and hopeless about this. I suppose I have wanted to do whatever I could to help the forest since that day.

CLEARING: Were you inspired or influenced by anybody in particular or anything you read or saw?
RM: I have been and always will be inspired by the natural world. I have never been into fantasy or science fiction because I always thought the real world was good enough for me.

CLEARING: How long have you been in the classroom?
RM: About nine years. I taught 4 years in England, 1.5 years on the Tulalip Indian Reservation and I have been at Sultan for almost 4 years now.

CLEARING: Talk about the inquiry and community-based projects that earned you the Presidential Award for Innovation.
RM: I think that I received the award for my work in helping to run our school’s salmon hatchery, starting gardens on school grounds, and doing habitat restoration in our forest. The hatchery could not have been successful without the help and guidance of community member Don Foltz. I have also received lots of help from Kelli Mack of Everett Steelhead and Salmon club, Trevor Jenison of the Wallace Falls State Hatchery, and our librarian Conan has helped tremendously by maintaining the trails in our forest. The district has also been helpful in their willingness to maintain the hatchery and our administration has given me the freedom to teach how I feel is right. Our students are also incredible people: helpful, humble, intelligent, and enthusiastic. I could not have done any of these projects successfully without their help.

monger photoCLEARING: What do you find most rewarding about inquiry-based learning?
RM: I love watching students figure out problems on their own. I feel like learning to problem solve is far more important than memorizing scientific facts and vocabulary. The only way that I have ever learned in my life is by trying things for myself, so I am trying to give my students that same experience. It is both more enjoyable for me and for them when they get to explore the world around them on their own terms.

CLEARING: Are there any resources (books, curriculum, community-based) that you use that you have found particularly valuable?
RM: I have found the river and the forest to be particularly valuable. They are ever changing and are full of teaching resources. I learn more in one minute in the forest than I could over a lifetime of studying pre-prescribed curriculum. In just the last few weeks, we have seen an owl, a hawk, deer and deer tracks, nursery logs, a forest floor golden with cottonwood leaves, salmon spawning, and the most beautiful mushrooms on earth. What more could you ask for?

CLEARING: What has been the response to your program from parents and the community?
RM: Overwhelmingly positive. As far as I can tell, most (if not all) students love learning outside, even in bad weather. I have received nothing but positive comments from parents and lots of help from people in the community, particularly those listed above. My most important community asset by far has been the help of my students. They have all shown interest and I have had many helpful TA’s. Of particular help have been students who were in the running start program, but have chosen to come back and to help. Jazmen Griggs, Liam McDonell, Olivia Gasselsdorfer, Logan Berti, and Josh Morehead have a spent countless hours helping me in the classroom when they did not have to be there. I would have been lost without them.

CLEARING: Have you been able to expand your program?
RM: Yes I have. We continue to restore habitat in the woods, garden, collect mushrooms, and run the salmon hatchery. Every year, we spend more time outside. I am currently applying for grants to build an outdoor classroom and take students to visit old-growth forest.

CLEARING: Can you share a particularly memorable moment from your student projects over the past couple of years?
RM: I love walking through the forest with them. They have taught me so much about life and how to appreciate it. I love kneeling before a tree or a mushroom and admiring them together.

CLEARING: What keeps you motivated to do the work that you do?
RM: The enthusiasm of the students and the serenity of the forest.

CLEARING: Who are your environmental heroes?
RM: Salmon, cedar trees, huckleberry bushes, douglas firs, big leaf maples, black bears, bald eagles, and beavers. Anyone who has done anything to help educate about or preserve our local forests.

CLEARING: What book(s) are you currently reading?
RM: ‘Salmon’ by Peter Coates and ‘The Final Forest’ by William Dietrich.

CLEARING: Do you have any advise for young teachers just getting started?
RM: Do what you feel is right and make sure your primary feedback comes from the students and the look in their eyes. This will tell you more about your teaching successes than a whole mountain of data will. Also, treat the students with respect and they will do the same to you.

CLEARING: Any final thoughts that you’d like to share?
RM: I love teaching about the forest and the river. I hope to be able to do it until the day that I die.

CLEARING: Thank you so much for your time, and best wishes for your continued success!

Ear to the Ground – Monica Nissen

Ear to the Ground – Monica Nissen

An Interview with Monica Nissen

2015 Environmental Educator of the Year

monicanissenThe Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication (EECOM) has named Monica Nissen as the ‘Outstanding Environmental Education Non-profit Individual’ for 2015. In addition, the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network (CBEEN) has given her the 2015 Environmental Education Award of Excellence. Congratulations, Monica!

A passion for the wilderness and a gift for teaching drew Monica Nissen into the field of environmental education where she has worked both inside and outside the classroom for the past 20 years. From guiding mountaineering trips to designing workshops on sustainability leadership, to describing the life cycle of the spawning salmon, Monica has spent the last two decades developing and delivering educational programs that inspire a love for nature and a stewardship ethic. In the early 90’s, Monica spent several years working as a park interpreter researching, developing, and conducting education programs for visitors to provincial, and municipal parks and conservation areas.

Since earning her teaching from UBC’s West Kootenay Teacher Education Program in 2000, Monica has taken her commitment to environmental education region-wide, supporting classroom teachers throughout the Canadian Columbia Basin with place-based education opportunities for their students..

Initially hired as an Environmental Educator by Wildsight— an organization that advocates for the protection of biodiversity and healthy human communities in Canada’s Columbia and Rocky Mountains ecoregion— Monica now assumes the role of Program Manager, running field trip and classroom -based programs including ‘Winter Wonder’, ‘Classroom with Outdoors’, ‘Beyond Recycling’, and ‘Know Your Watershed’. Monica is also a committed volunteer for the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network, in which she is a Wild Voices for Kids Community Educator and continues to host CBEEN’s Voices for Sustainability Symposium – an annual gathering for environmental educators that she founded nearly a decade ago. She is also a tireless classroom teacher, WildBC facilitator, Know Your Watershed Educator, Kootenay Community Bat Project Educator, Stream of Dreams Educator, Adventure, Tourism, Leadership and Safety Program Leader, and a UBC-West Kootenay Teacher Education Program Instructor, among countless other roles.

Monica has also been an instrumental member on the WildBC team that responded to the Ministry of Education draft curriculum and subsequent request for their recommendations on 21st century learning competencies, science rationale and content that includes ecological literacy, systems thinking, and place-based learning concepts for K-9 Science. —from CBEEN website


MonicaCLEARING: Congratulations on being named EECOM’s Non-formal Environmental Educator of the Year. What led you to become an environmental educator in the first place?

Monica Nissen:
I remember one of my early jobs as a camp counselor at Camp Chief Hector in Alberta was very inspiring-  it was an amazing camp with great out-trip programs; hiking, canoeing, and horse tripping.  We also ran school programs, the classic Steve Van Matre ones like ‘Sunship Earth.’  I loved that way of teaching! I also worked at Sea to Sky Outdoor School for Sustainability Education on the Sunshine Coast.  What an incredible bunch of educators. That place has always stood out for me as being on the leading edge, and for inspiring me to try and do similar things in my own area, here in the Kootenays.

CLEARING: Did you have a specific experience as a child that connected you to the natural world?

MN: I grew up near Montreal, on the north shore of the Mile-Iles River.  There was a forest right out the back door.  I had a tree fort and a rope swing, and we could go cross-country skiing from our house. I remember a favourite book for awhile was ‘Mudpies and Other Recipes’My family used to go camping every summer, places like Algonquin Park and La Mauricie.  One summer, we were camping in Vermont, and I remember meeting my first Park Naturalist.  I remember learning about turtles and ferns…I was about 10 years old. I couldn’t believe it could be somebody’s job to be outside, learn about nature, and teach it to others. I decided then that that was what I wanted to do!

CLEARING: Do you have a favorite moment in your experience teaching environmental education?

MN: Oh, not easy to pick just one!  I remember a number of years back, I was out with a class on a ‘Classroom with Outdoors’ field trip. The students were invited to do a short ‘solo’ or ‘sit spot’. Such a simple activity, to sit in the forest and just ‘be’.  Silent, still, and observing.  One girl came back and said that that was the most peaceful she had ever been in her life!  What a gift.  I think that statement really exemplified all the stuff Richard Louv was talking about, with nature-deficit disorder and over-scheduled lives that kids lead.   I felt that if I could just offer the invitation to get outside a little more, and for kids to take time being mindful and peaceful in nature…then I’d be doing something worthwhile.

I have been fortunate, through the years, to see a lot of ‘ah-ha moments’ from students, and some powerful anecdotal feedback that has made me feel that I am part of something very important. It’s really as simple as (re)connecting kids to nature.

CLEARING: Have you found a favorite resource to use for teaching about the environment?

MN: Wow- there are so many!! Green Teacher magazine, online resources that are hosted by the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network (www.cbeen.ca) a network I am very excited about!!), and I’m so pleased to discover Clearing!  Some of my favourite books include classics such as Sharing Nature With Children, by Joseph Cornell, and Rediscovery, by Thom Henley. I have taken a couple of workshops and hope to make my way to the Wilderness Awareness School for some immersion in Coyote Mentorship, and appreciate very much the book, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature (by Jon Young, Ellen Haas and Evan McGown).I love Ecological Literacy- Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World (edited byt Michael K Stone and Zenia Barlow, and am so inspired by the ideas and inspiration coming out of the Center for Ecological Literacy.

I think the best ‘resource’ is place– our backyards, parks, protected areas, forests, lakes, streams, gardens, communities- the real world!!

CLEARING: So you had never heard of CLEARING Magazine before this, right?

MN: No I hadn’t, but I am so glad I have now!! It looks amazing- and like such a great way for us in our bioregion to connect!!

CLEARING: Yeah, that’s what I’ve always believed. There needs to be a strong communications tool that connects educators in this bioregion.

MN: Well, I hope this can be a great start- we have an incredible regional EE network in CBEEN, and we are really well-organized and excited to build the network

CLEARING: I’ve had some contact with CBEEN, which I agree is a one of the most energetic and well organized EE groups in the region. So how can we improve networking and communication for EE within the bioregion?


Monica Nissen in her element.

MN: I think particularly in the Columbia Basin bioregion, I would really hope that as we get closer to renewing the Columbia River Treaty, we might look at some funding for trans-boundary educational initiatives- or maybe it’s about looking at initiatives that are currently being funded and seeing if there are gaps when it comes to school and community-based education.

Political boundaries aside, there has to be a way for us to work together more. One of the program I love is the Know Your Watershed program, which is all about connecting students in our watershed. We have a great floor map that we use to show the entire Basin, and we discuss impacts and effects of water and land use on downstream users. The American part of the Basin is downstream and of course absolutely connected as well! I feel like there will be more opportunities with the renewal of the Columbia River Treaty!

I do feel very fortunate in that the programs Wildsight runs are funded in great part by the Columbia Basin Trust (cbt.org), and that we also get support from local utilities, such as FortisBc and BC Hydro. This kind of support for education programs run by non-profit organizations is so important.

CLEARING: Many funding sources still want to focus on specific issues, saying that broad-based environmental education is too long-term for their purposes. They are looking for more immediate results. What do you think about that?

MN: I really appreciate funders who ‘get it’- that long-term investment in programs that connect students to nature and build ecological literacy, even if they don’t show immediate “results”, are worthwhile. I think it’s all about shifting a worldview. That takes time.

CLEARING: Are you aware of any curriculum materials that look at the entire Columbia River basin/watershed as the context for environmental literacy?

MN: Well, the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) website has an incredible array of resources. Great historical, cultural, ecological information. As far as a whole curriculum, the closest thing to what you are asking about that I know of is Know Your Watershed. Hmm…sounds like a trans-boundary conference on EE and specifically watershed literacy needs to happen in the Columbia basin…maybe not this year though.

CLEARING: Yeah, I’ve also been talking with David Zandvliet at Simon Fraser University. He’s coordinating a World Congress of Environmental Education in 2017. That could be a great opportunity for environmental education to make some significant gains.

MN: Oh great! He’s another mover and shaker!I know here in BC we have been going through a curriculum transformation, and the EE community has really been part of the shift, and been able to be present at the table—I think it will lead to some very exciting possibilities. As our colleagues in Alberta (Alberta Council for Environmental Education) say, “Pushing the environment from the sidelines into the mainstream.”

CLEARING: I thought I was going to ask you to be on the Clearing regional advisory board, but then I noticed the extensive list of commitments you already have in your life.

MN: Well, as I said before, I need to work on saying ‘no’ sometimes! It’s so difficult when all this amazing stuff comes up that i absolutely believe in and want to support!!

CLEARING: How do you find the time to do all that you do?

MN: Ha!  Good question!  Sometimes I just don’t limit myself to an 8-hour work day! This past fall I worked a lot of week-ends… seriously though, I feel that it’s important to have a good work/life balance.  To walk the talk.  I live where I do because of all the fantastic opportunities to explore and enjoy being outside and in the wild…

I am so pleased to be able to be mentoring and enabling educators new to the field.  It is so good to know that there are many people committed to this work- maybe that makes it easier to let go and not feel like I have to do ‘it all’… 

CLEARING: Is there any particular individual who has inspired you?

MN: Oh, there are so many. I have a lot of heroes, from David Suzuki, for carrying the torch for so many years despite his message falling on deaf ears, to Lee-Anne walker, a mentor of mine who began the Wildsight Education programs fifteen years ago.  My parents, for getting me outside and for sharing their love for the natural world. Nancie Dohan and Daphne van Alstine, for hiring me for my first park naturalist job.

There are so many stories of inspiration and so many people working in their own ways to support a changing world view and a reconnection for kids, with the natural world…

CLEARING: What book(s) are you currently reading that relate to your work?

MN: I picked up a book by Laurie Rubin, called ‘To Look Closely- Science and Literacy in the Natural World’. It’s a really great case study of a teacher doing such a wonderful job of making the local wild places- just adjacent to the schoolyard, a focal point for a whole year of inquiry learning. I am looking forward to building my library to include some of the books she refers to and incorporates.  Personally, it’s getting into ski season, so I’m reading Deep Powder –40 Years of Ecstatic Skiing, Avalanches and Earth Wisdom, by Dolores Lachapelle.

CLEARING: What does the future hold for you? What are your goals and where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?

MN: Hmm…I want to keep at it, as I think there will continue to be the need, and the desire on my part to support kids in connecting to, and loving nature! I kind of dream of a future where this is all part of what is supported by and embedded in the education system, and when I don’t need to fundraise in order to make the programs happen! I am feeling relatively optimistic that this could be the case.  The new curriculum in BC has a lot of exciting possibilities- if we are to teach in a way that is rooted in place-based curriculum, if we are to encourage student inquiry that is authentic and connected to the real world, then surely the kind of programs that support just that will become increasingly valued…and funded!

Award-of-Excellence_EECOM1-300x255CLEARING: How do you feel about the election of Justin Trudeau as Canadian PM? Any hopes that this will lead to some change in education?

MN: Oh wow- well, the change in government is really welcome- it’s like the whole country is breathing a sigh of relief. There is such a feeling of hope- we are hoping for change in so many areas.

I hope we’ll see some change in the education system as well. of course, this is more the jurisdiction of the provinces. We have been in the process of a curriculum transformation here in BC. There are some very positive things about it…

CLEARING: Already the Canadian representative at the climate change conference in Paris has said Canada is pledging to support stronger carbon standards.

MN: I know- like I said, there is so much hope. I guess if we change our whole worldview to more of a systems approach, then environment/economy/education are all part of a system, and EE isn’t a separate idea or topic but is integrated and part of all that we do…

CLEARING: One final question: What does the future of environmental education look like to you?

MN: EE is integrated in the curriculum, in a holistic way- not a separate ‘subject’ but part of all that we do with students…I think we’re getting  there.

CLEARING: Well, this has been great. Thanks so much for your time.

MN: Thanks so much for your interest …I hope this has been useful. Mostly it seems like a great opportunity to look at some collaborating and increasing awareness of each other and our organizations and initiatives.