Saturday, April 9, 2016

Journey of a Siskiyou Naturalist

My journey to becoming a naturalist begins long before this spring, but only now am I at a point where I can finally combine all of the tricks of the trade that I have picked up along the way. On a daily basis, I put my experience and environmental education theories into practice by creating my very own Outdoor School for All. When I landed here at the Siskiyou Field Institute, a lot of odds were against me. No one had been in my role for about 5 months. Teachers had registered for field trips, yet no one was there to coordinate or instruct their outings for them. Needless to say, I hit the ground running with hope in my heart and a lot of support behind me to uphold the reputation of the organization while providing an outlet for students to immerse themselves in nature.

The Siskiyou Field Institute is a very special place. It has a lot to offer in terms of natural resources with creeks, serpentine soils, mixed woodlands, and endemic plant species growing right on site. The teaching moments are infinite playing off of the natural bounty that exists here. Additionally, we offer a unique experience for groups to put their team building, communication, and confidence skills to the test by completing our challenge courses. 

One of the most popular field trips we offer for middle – high school students is an investigation of our watershed called “From Mountain Top to Valley Floor.” In this program, students assess the overall health of the watershed by testing the water quality of Deer Creek, Squaw Creek, and the reservoir, which is the source of our drinking water at the Siskiyou Field Institute. Students measure pH, water and air temperature, and record their observations of the weather, water clarity, vegetation covering the stream bank, and collect and identify macroinverteberates.

In order for students to be prepared to use a dichotomous key in the field to identify macroinvertebrates, I created a lesson that I introduce to the students during a classroom visit prior to their field trip. I enlarged drawings of macros for students to observe and have them work in small groups using their key to lead them to identify the species depicted in the illustrations.

The first field trip I coordinated occurred only two weeks after I started the job. Luckily, I had previously led field trips at the Siskiyou Field Institute during graduate school with my cohort from Southern Oregon University. This familiarity with the site and its resources has been crucial to my success as Youth Education Programs Coordinator. Seventy 6th grade students from the Valley Charter School came out from Medford for a watershed investigation day program. Unfortunately, their time got cut short due to miscommunication with the teachers about bus arrival and departure, lesson learned and regardless, the students spent a beautiful day in the outdoors.

A major goal of mine with the watersheds program is to take the data students are collecting onsite and upload their findings into a citizen science database such as Oregon State University’s “Stream Webs” or the Isaac Walton League’s “Creek Freaks.” I begin each program by telling students that they are all playing the role of aquatic ecologists during their field trip and their data will help us monitor the water quality of the creeks and how they fluctuate throughout the year.

The second field trip I coordinated was for the Applegate School 6th – 8th grade classes, 37 students total. By this time, I was able to hire Brod, a veteran SFI YEP instructor. I also gained inspiration for the field trip after attending level-one challenge course facilitation training at EarthTeach hosted by Synergo. This training taught me to incorporate metaphors into our challenge course among many other essential facilitating techniques.

The Applegate School students investigated the unique serpentine geology and resulting rare plant life. During their classroom presentation, I had the students act out plate tectonic movements using yoga poses and Oreos to represent the movement of the layers of the earth. This gave students the background knowledge they needed to understand how the ocean floor was uplifted onto the earth’s crust forming the ultra mafic (heavy metal) serpentine soils at the Siskiyou Field Institute. Plants adapted to these conditions have evolved to grow in this harsh environment in a variety of ways.

The most unique adaptation of the serpentine endemic plants is that of the Cobra Lily or Darlingtonia Californica. This plant grows in serpentine fens, which are wetlands with running water fed by springs coming off of 8-dollar Mountain. Cobra lilies have adapted to this environment by growing leaves that attract insects with a sweet smelling scent and trap them inside of their hollowed out tube of a leaf. Once the insects fall to the bottom of the plant, they are broken down by microorganisms living in the soil. These tiny creatures digest the insects to provide nutrients for the plant at its roots.

To help students understand these remarkable plants, we dissected a cobra lily together and observed the insects inside. I also used the metaphor of students pretending to be insects trapped inside of a cobra lily while completing the challenge course. I used this technique once again for a group of 12 high school students from Golden Eagle Charter School who visited us from Yreka, California.

These high schoolers were my guinea pigs for the first overnight program I coordinated at the Siskiyou Field Institute. Since the group was so small, it was easy to create an intimate, customized field trip where we investigated the watershed, learned about beetles from an entomologist leading a course for adults on site, made a campfire using a flint and magnesium technique, went on a night hike in total darkness, completed the challenge course as a team and investigated the unique adaptations of serpentine plants.

The overnight program was a huge success. At the end of their field trip, I facilitated a gratitude and sharing circle for the students and their teachers which produced some heartfelt appreciation for one another including a few tears shed for the bonds that were built during those two days. Brod and I felt very accomplished and our hearts were glad as we waved goodbye to a dozen teenagers who left with a deeper understanding and love for themselves, one another, and the natural world.