Ear to the Ground – Rus Higley

Ear to the Ground – Rus Higley

An Interview with Rus Higley

2016 Marine Education Classroom Educator of the Year

higley-with-whale-skeletonRus Higley has worked as Manager at the Marine Science and Technology Center at Highline College since its opening in 2003. He was born in Alaska, but grew up in Des Moines and graduated from Western Washington University with a B.S. in Marine Biology. He then went on to get his M.S. in Curriculum & Instruction from Old Dominion, and Master of Marine Affairs from the University of Washington. Besides managing the MaST Center, Rus teaches classes at Highline College in Marine Biology, Environmental Sciences and Oceanography, and teaches Environmental Sciences at the University of Washington, Tacoma.NAMElogo

Rus Higley was recently named the 2016 Marine Educator of the Year by the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators (NAME).

Congratulations on being named the 2016 Outstanding Classroom Educator by NAME. So what led you to becoming an environmental educator in the first place?

After college, I joined Peace Corps where I taught science to high school students and worked at a catfish hatchery. While doing that I learned that I enjoyed teaching and so have continued to develop opportunities. When I returned to the Northwest, I had a non-teaching position with Highline College. Shortly, after I started, I got a call from the VP for instruction who knew my background and had an oceanography class without an instructor…the catch was it started in 3 days. 17 years later I’m still teaching!

Did you have a specific experience as a child that connected you to the natural world?
I’m originally from Sitka, Alaska and spent most of my childhood summers up there. My friends and I always played on the beach looking for animals, getting stuck in the mud, and fishing. It always seemed like the only choice.

What are you working on right now?
In addition to everything else, I’m working with Washington SCUBA Alliance on the creation of an artificial reef for divers here in Redondo, WA. A recent meeting with Senator Karen Kaiser gave us a lot of hope for this to move forward. Part of the motivation for this is that the state is removing toxic materials, such as pilings and tires, from the Puget Sound. Although a long term gain for the health of the Puget Sound, it is a short term loss of some beautiful habitat and dive sites. This reef would use natural materials to build appropriate structures for local marine life. One big aspect we are working on is the research that is needed to show that this in truly a “good” idea, so we are working to develop a suitable research program to look at the diversity of life both before and after it is built.

higley-with-eel-fishWhat is your favorite part of your job?
If you’d asked me 10-15 years ago to describe my perfect job, except for the warm and tropical part, I’ve got it. Not only do I get to teach oceanography and marine biology to college students, I get to run an amazing community sized marine aquarium. The MaST Center is a 3,000 gallon aquarium facility for Highline College that not only has college classes but brings in thousands of school kids and thousands of visitors every year. Our small crew of staff and volunteers have done so many amazing things and continue to push the limits.

Can you share a story about a project that worked really well, or a particular student you remember?
Over this fall quarter, as the technical advisor, I am working with the Foss Waterway Seaport and Tacoma Public Schools to articulate a 23 foot gray whale skeleton. We started this project last Christmas, when it was found dead on the beach. Since then, we’ve conducted a necropsy, flensed the meat off, composted the bones, and are now articulating the skeleton. The work is being done by 15 Stadium High School students who during the quarter have talked to an engineer about the structural limitations including a proposed “pose” for the animals, an ethical conversation on whether it should or should not be named, a naturopathic doctor to compare human and whale bones, the lead scientist for the necropsy to help determine why it died. While all of that has been going on, the students are literally putting the whale together.
[Note: Check out The Tacoma News Tribune article on this project]

What are your biggest concerns about the state of marine/aquatic education today?
Most kids have a passion for the ocean but it is limited to whales, sea turtles, and Nemo. My biggest concern and goal is taking that passion and using it to grow them into educated citizens and maybe even a scientist.

You’re a strong advocate for environmental justice. How do you incorporate that into the work you’re currently doing?
Highline College is one of the most diverse colleges in America and serves in South King County one of the most diverse populations. Helping people realize that they are a part of the environment and need to take ownership for their choices is really important. Much of our outreach is focusing on the non-traditional “student”. As a teacher, working with students to explore ideas like internal and external cost. For example last year, one of my classes dug really deeply into a proposed methanol plant in Tacoma which was eventually cancelled before being built.

Do you have any advice for someone starting out in this field?
Build your résumé. My daughter is a sophomore in college where it is easy to get lost especially at the larger schools. Being in the top 10% of a class of 500 students does not stand out. What else have you done? Referring back to the whale, imagine the resume of the Stadium High School students who took all these great classes AND BUILT A WHALE! Get connected with your teachers and professionals as they often know of opportunities that you may not have heard of. Also, find your dream job(s). If you don’t know where you want to be in 10 years, it’s hard to work for that. Even though I’m not looking for a new job and in fact love my job, I have literally over a hundred job descriptions of possible jobs for me in the future. Every time I see a job description that sounds interesting, I save it in my file. Also get on professional organizations and look for their job boards. For example, if you want to work in an aquarium, the Association of Zoos and Aquarium job/internship board has opportunities from all over.

Where do you find inspiration for the work you do?higley-and-octopus
The students are an obvious answer and are some of my biggest inspiration. Seeing them make the connections, seeing them open their eyes to a new thing or way of thinking, is amazing. Also, I try to keep current in the field to help motivate me to continue to push myself.

What is your favorite resource or tool for teaching marine science?
The web has so many real time, global sized resources. One of my new favorite visualizations for the planet is earth.nullschool.net which has a nearly real time model of wind, temperature, ocean currents, etc.

What’s your favorite marine creature?
Like a lot of divers in the Pacific Northwest, I love the octopuses. Any dive that finds an octopus is a good dive. At my marine center, we have the opportunity to work with several animals for long periods of time. Watching them grow, learn how to recognize people, and play is amazing. Last year, I even took an octopus to prison for a talk on octopus intelligence. I also generally dive with our octopus during our Octopus Graduation event where we release them back into the Puget Sound and follow them with a streaming camera so the audience can watch real time on the surface. Google “octopus graduation” and you can find some of the old videos.

Where do you go when you want to recharge your batteries?
I’m a river rafter and have been guiding for over 20 years. Getting on the river feeds me. This past August, my wife and I, along with a group of friends, spent 18 days rafting the Grand Canyon. Although a challenging experience, living on “river time” changes the way I look at things.

Do you have a favorite place to visit in the Pacific Northwest?
We love to go camping and two of my favorites are Cape Disappointment which is down by the mouth of the Columbia River and Salt Creek Recreation Area up by Port Angeles. Both feature the ocean but are significantly different environments.

higley-with-octopus-and-daughtersAre you reading any great books at the moment?
I’m currently working on Energy for Future Presidents by Muller. Although I don’t agree with everything he says, he really works to try to make honest comparisons and has me reevaluating some of my opinions. For example, how does solar power compare to nuclear to natural gas. I’d really love to have a follow up conversation with him because I think he glosses over some of those external costs.
Another favorite is Shell Games by Craig Welch who explores the illegal trade of geoducks here in the Puget Sound area. It’s a factual book that reads like a crime fiction novel.

And finally, who do you consider your environmental heroes?
Rachel Carson whose work Silent Spring played a role in the start of the modern environmental movement. Her science was amazing and her strength to stand up to all the people who thought women can’t be scientists continues to inspire me.
Nowadays, Elon Musk and his push for game changing improvements in alternative energies. We need people to think big.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Thanks for including me in your great publication. Being recognized for doing the stuff I love is a true honor.

# # #

Open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to the public, the MaST Center, mast.highline.edu, is located at 28203 Redondo Beach Drive S.—halfway between Seattle and Tacoma and about 5 minutes south of the main Highline Campus.


Ear to the Ground is a regular feature of CLEARING. Check the website for previous interviews.

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.

Ear to the Ground – Ralph Harrison, Science and Math Institute

Ear to the Ground – Ralph Harrison, Science and Math Institute

ralph talks again
Ralph Harrison is the 2013 winner of the EPA’s Presidential Award for Innovation in Environmental Education. We caught up to him as he was heading for Alaska and managed to get some insight into his personal perspectives and motivations as a teacher of environmental science.

What is your current job title?
I’m the Science Department head at the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma Public Schools.

How did you get into this field?
I hold Bachelor’s degree in Science Education Central Washington University and Masters in Biology from Washington State University. I’ve been an active member of the Washington State Science Teachers Association Board for ten plus years. I advocate for high quality science teaching, experiential learning, and inquiry-based learning.

And how did your current position come about?
I worked as a founding teacher of Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA), and focused my time to develop a quality science and math program in an arts-focused highschool. I believe strongly in the importance of high quality science instruction for all students 9-12th grades and integration with the arts. From work with my colleagues at SOTA, we hatched the idea for SAMI, another community partnership school at Point Defiance Park, where the 702-acre park setting became the classroom. I worked with a team as one of the founding teachers of Science and Math Institute high school.
The natural beauty of the park inspired an environmental science focus for the school. From there, I developed a full outdoor education science program that included phenology of plants and animals.

What is your motivation for this work?
I’m passionate about making a difference in science and environmental education for students and creating schools where students and teachers capitalize on community assets. Students find their passion through relevant learning; their success is the focal point.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working to develop partnerships with local and national organizations. One I’m particularly excited about is with the USA National Phenology Network. SAMI students in outdoor education classes will be integrating their phenology gathering fieldwork into the national database. I’m also working to integrate our school’s robotics program into field gathering instruments. The students and I are building a hexacopter to act as a data gathering platform to research 150-foot tall Douglas Fir tree snags in the park.

What is your favorite part of your job?
Being able to be outside with students researching and actively learning in the park’s forests.
If you could change anything about your work, what would it be?
I’m passionate about students participating in relevant, active, learning, research and science. As technology and the advancement of science continues at a lightning pace, I want the students to have access to the most current instruments and protocols so that they’re learning is relevant and timely. I struggle to provide these materials with limited resources. That’s why I consistently seek partnerships.

How do you feel about the Next Generation Science Standards?

I’m all in on standards based teaching as well as Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s). PLC’s bring the old and new together, and form common strategies, voice, and collegiality. The SOTA and SAMI staff work hand-in-hand to bring the NGSS and the Washington State Standards in a common voice to the students. I cite a 30% jump of test scores in the Washington Biology End of Course exam this past year as evidence that standards based teaching as well as PLC’s have a dramatic impact.

Where do you find inspiration for the work you do?

I have the great privilege of living near Point Defiance Park on Salmon Beach (Google earth it and you’ll see what I mean), an old community built on pilings 100 years ago right below the park I work at. I want to share with the students the natural resources that I’ve come to know love.

What is your favorite resource or tool for teaching about the environment?
My collection of various field guides from all over the Pacific Northwest, like my favorite, Pojar& MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast.

Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
I’m an avid fly-fishermen and enjoy travelling throughout the Northwest enjoying the environments I visit as I fish.

What is your favorite Nature / Environment book?

Trees, Truffles and Beasts by; Chris Maser, Andrew Claridge, and James Trappe.

Who do you consider your environmental hero?
My colleague and friend Ken Luthy, who I’ve worked with for twenty three years, teaching together and starting schools. I’m inspired by his passion for the environment, his time spent as a National Park Ranger during the summer months, and his dedication to teaching high school and learning.

What words of encouragement would you give a new science teacher just entering the classroom?
It takes years to truly get the hang of teaching science. Work with your colleagues to make science instruction the highest quality and relevant to your students and community. Seek out what your communities assets are and use them. Bring your class outside of the walls that define your school, especially with regards to Environmental Education.

Ear to the Ground – Sara Focht, Idaho Non-formal Environmental Educator of the Year

Ear to the Ground – Sara Focht, Idaho Non-formal Environmental Educator of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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