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The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I

July 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Jennifer O’Toole, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. 

Curiosity is born from one of the most unlikely of places: boredom. I used to fight the feeling of boredom, as I had been trained to do by the media with its constant barrage of entertainment, the internet with its never-ending information and by my own relentless drive to be productive. But one day I decided to try something different. I was trying to write a lesson plan for my 3rd grade science class the following day and found myself feeling bored with the work. I stopped typing and decided to let the feeling of boredom wash over me, accepting that I was bored instead of rejecting it. I decided to trust that, if I stewed long enough within my boredom, a flicker of curiosity would ignite and reinvigorate my brain to continue its productivity. A few minutes later I heard the pitter-patter of rain starting on my roof and my mind wandered to water as I noted the feeling of comfort that crept over me as I listened. I thought of splashing in the puddles, racing homemade boats down drainage ditches and allowing myself to become soaked. I had a strong desire suddenly to relive the feeling of joy and freedom created in that memory and—curious, now—looked to see what weather was predicted for the following day. More rain! It was decided: my students and I were going outside to play and explore water physics tomorrow.

I have felt, during my 10 years as an educator, the forceful squashing of curiosity. Instead of allowing the space my students need to get used to the boredom necessary to discover their own interests and then pursue them, the curriculum I must strictly shove down the often disinterested throats of my students is so jam packed I haven’t the time to get through half of what I’m expected to. My students must be able to regurgitate the correct answers to the specific questions they must know to pass the tests that will determine the level of stress they will endure for the remainder of the school year. The students who fail to “perform well on” the state and national exams (selecting one too many incorrect multiple choice answers while staring at a computer screen for hours is now considered a form of “performing”) face years of potential medicating, tutoring, extra homework and ridicule from other students. It’s no wonder under such stressed conditions that a child’s ability to perform creatively, focused on topics that interest them, is significantly diminished. I found myself searching for ways to nurture curiosity in my mentoring (I no longer use the word teaching, as it implies something being done to the student as opposed to with them), which I found meant significantly less control on my part and much more on that of the students.

Photo of raven stealing food. Image courtesy of Pixabay

» Continue reading The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I

The Great Fisher

July 4th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Smokey Brine, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

A warm summer wind funnels down the Skagit River, blowing wisps of brown hair in front of my eyes. I shift my head to regain sight of the river channel and spot a green canoe cutting the water in front of me. The three passengers are laughing at something, I can hear their muffled exclamations over the sound of the rapids chopping against my boat. I attempt to propel my kayak closer to their conversation; clearly I am missing out on some sort of hilarity with my new housemates. When I catch up the river is now calm. I look to my friends and notice their gazes are focused downriver but not at the oncoming curve. Instead, they look upward.

Further downstream the Skagit River curves south, continuing its course from high in the formidable North Cascade mountains to the Salish Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Behind me is a wall of snowy peaks cutting the sky. In front, rounded tree-covered hills roll slowly seaward. The frost-bitten-blue color of the water beneath me hints at the river’s glacial origins and it seems that the clear blue of the westward sky is not quite as beautiful as the water below.

Ahead, before the riverbend, I spot the thing that has made my friends so watchful; a dark speck is hovering above the azure water. It seems motionless, as if suspended in time. It suddenly plunges downwards and I recognize the spectacle as the osprey crashes head-and-talon first into the water. An audible gasp issues from both our boats and we watch as the enormous bird rises from the water with a large fish clutched in its talons. The luckless fish, what appears to be a trout, is limp in the bird’s grasp. The hunter is successful.  

» Continue reading The Great Fisher

Who Cares About Beavers? We Do!

June 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Melissa Biggs, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Everyone, meet Chompers!  In October 2016, during the fall natural history trip, my cohort helped the Methow Beaver Project volunteers to release the last 3 beavers of the season.  So much fun! We carried the beavers for several miles and released them at Beaver Creek. When we opened the cage, Chompers went right into the water.  It was fascinating to watch the three beavers explore their new environment.  This summer, the Methow Beaver Project workers will locate Chompers and the other two beavers to record their journey since the fall. This experience made me more curious about beavers and their role in the ecosystem. As I did more research, I realized how awesome beavers are!

Beavers are so wonderful that they are known as environmental engineers.  Beavers are known as a “keystone” species because of their large effects on landscapes.  It only takes a few beavers to transform a watershed entirely.  Beavers, with the exception of human beings, do more to shape their landscape than any other Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets! Beavers are also a “foundation” species because their presence and their creations, such as dams, allow other plants and animals to exist.  

Beavers’ creations are essential to its environment for many reasons.  First, beaver dams are natural filters, as they capture and store much of the sediment.  Streams that have been shaped by beavers have 10 times greater purification capability than streams without beavers.  Also, beaver dams store water, thus leading to the increased size of wetlands. Beaver dams can help mitigate the effects of drought and the loss of wetland and riparian habitats due to their abilities to store shallow groundwater and retention of surface water behind dams.   This is important because almost half of endangered and threatened species in North America rely upon wetlands.  Also, freshwater wetlands have been rated as the world’s most valuable land-based ecosystem.  Beaver ponds increase both the water we can see on the surface and also what is stored beneath the pond.  This helps increase the riparian area and vegetative productivity.  Not only do beaver dams store water, they also help slow down the water flow, which is why they are known as ‘nature’s speed bumps.’  They reduce stream velocity and power, which helps reduce erosion rates and the amount of sediment carried downstream.  This effect across the upper watershed could provide more time for flood planning, protection and evacuation of high risk, residential areas.  Beaver ponds also help stabilize the water temperature both in the shallow and deeper areas – they help cool down streams, creating better conditions for fish, especially trout.  Last, but not last, beavers’ modification on watersheds help increase organic material, such as cut wood and flooded plants, sediment with nutrients attached and more water surface area for photosynthesis to occur, which results in more aquatic biodiversity and food for fish.  Without beavers and the role they play in watersheds, most of the biodiversity that are associated with wetland habitats would disappear.


Chompers in his cage right before he’s released! Image courtesy of Melissa Biggs

» Continue reading Who Cares About Beavers? We Do!

Takin’ Care of Beesinus: United States Native Bee Facts, Threats and Conservation

June 11th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Becky Moore, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the image and idea of a bee. The black and yellow character from Honey Nut Cheerios perhaps, happily making honey in buzzing hives. However, what most people do not realize is that there is a vast, diverse and complicated world of bees outside the classic honeybee, most of which goes largely unnoticed. In fact, there are over 20,000 species of bees worldwide, over 4,000 of which are found in North America. About 600 native species can be found in the state of Washington.

Our honeybee friend is actually not among these; this domesticated species was introduced to North America from Europe in 1640. The majority of native bees in the US are small, solitary species, most of which do not fit any of the classic images people may think of.     

A beautiful metallic green bee (Augochloropsis metallica) visiting a flower. Image courtesy of WikiCommons

These bees have an average size of about 1cm long and live, nest, and feed completely on their own. Females forage to create enough provisions to feed their young, which they encase individually in carefully crafted cells. There are 5 major families of bees, each of which has their own methods of nesting. Some of these tiny solitary bees are miners, digging tunnels underground. Some are leafcutters, lining their nests with perfectly round leaf cutouts, some are masons, creating their nests out of mud and clay, and still others are carpenters, boring holes into wood to lay their eggs. Young bees hatch in the fall, hibernate over the winter, and emerge in spring to mate, begin foraging, and create their own nests, starting the cycle over. Many of these bee species are specialist feeders, meaning that they have co-evolved with specific species or families of flowers and are highly adapted to pollinate them the most effectively. Such plant species would not be able to survive without certain bee species.

» Continue reading Takin’ Care of Beesinus: United States Native Bee Facts, Threats and Conservation

What is a Leadership Track?

May 24th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

As a current graduate student in the M.Ed. residency program at North Cascades Institute, I and the rest of my cohort, will soon celebrate the end of our spring quarter here in the North Cascades. Our residency at NCI has engaged us deeply with the natural and cultural history of the area through place-based and experiential learning courses and quarterly field studies in the Methow Valley. We have had room to grow as educators, designing curriculum and instructing Mountain School to elementary, middle and high school students across the state. We have learned the inner workings of nonprofit administration under the guidance of Executive Director, Saul Weisberg, and various NCI staff members. With these four quarters completed, the final stage of our time here in the North Cascades is our Leadership Track.

What is a Leadership Track?
Leadership Tracks are the culminating residency experience, serving as an avenue for practicing leadership skills in a professional setting. These summer internships generally fall in a content area that students are interested in pursuing beyond the graduate program. Content areas currently include curriculum and/or program design and implementation, administrative duties, outdoor and environmental education, food sustainability, stewardship projects, and youth mentorship. A $2,500 leadership fellowship is awarded upon completion of the final quarter of the residency portion of the program.

Last year, the 15th graduate cohort filled Leadership Track positions all over the Cascade region. While most of our graduate work throughout the year focuses on programming here at NCI, our Leadership Track position offers us the opportunity to work with different agencies and organizations in the local area. They also allow graduate students to engage with diverse participant audiences or groups that they may wish to pursue working with in the future.

» Continue reading What is a Leadership Track?

2011 Instructor Exchange Eagle Watching

Time Along the Skagit: Eagle Watching With Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors

March 24th, 2017 | Posted by in Adventures

January can be warm on the lower Skagit and this late January Saturday was no exception. As Becky Moore, Alexei Desmarais and I arrived at the Howard Miller Steelhead Park on the Skagit River in Rockport, WA, we looked to see if there were any Bald Eagles present around the river.

As graduate M.Ed. students at North Cascades Institute, we live and study near the headwaters of the Skagit River. We had come to the river this morning to meet a fellow graduate student and along with the US Forest Service, provide an interpretive and educational experience for two unique organizations – Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors. Both organizations mean to bring families and kids to rural areas with open public lands, giving them opportunity to have fun and get outside.

That morning we met to learn about salmon and what they mean to the Skagit River and the animals, plants and humans that live here. We hoped to see Bald Eagles, which spend the winters here feeding on dead salmon which have spawned during the fall and winter. These salmon carcasses provide high energy food for many predators in this ecosystem.

Participants from the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors enjoying the afternoon learning about salmon ecology and the Skagit River watershed. Photo by Daniel Dubie

Having a large number of participants, we split up into four smaller groups, deciding to mix up their time with games and a chance to walk around and enjoy the river. In my group we decided to play a salmon game in which a group of folks are chosen to represent salmon fry which go out in the ocean, grab food, and make their way back to the stream where they were born without getting tagged by other folks who represent dangers such as whales, fisherman, eagles, and bears. We played the game a few times, increasing the numbers of dangers in order to show how hard it really is for a salmon population to sustain itself without a large robust population.

Students have fun while learning about salmon population! Photos by Daniel Dubie

As the day continued, we interpreted salmon and eagle ecology in relation to the Skagit River to our groups and visited the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center. I feel that these peaceful and fun experiences here along the river and the land surrounding it, can be instrumental in forming relationships with the lan and our greater world.

Written by Daniel Dubie, avid naturalist and graduate M.Ed. student at North Cascades Institute. 

2017 Instructor Exchange

January 20th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

On January 14th, the M.Ed graduate students of Cohort 16 (C16) welcomed students and staff from Islandwood and Wilderness Awareness School to North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center for the first of three gatherings that make up the annual Instructor Exchange. Every winter, this exchange offers instructors the chance to meet others in the environmental education field and share and discuss what we do within our own residential learning programs.

In the next coming weeks, the exchange will continue with trips to Islandwood’s Urban Environmental Education M.A.Ed program in Seattle, Islandwood’s Education for Environment and Community and Living graduate program on Bainbridge Island and Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Washington.

North Cascade Institute M.Ed graduates waiting to lead an orientation and campus tour for Islandwood and Wilderness Awareness School students.

For our time at the Institute ELC, we offered a series a break out sessions and recreational activities, each led by C16 graduates. The break out sessions provided us the space and time to delve deeper into topics that we each felt passionate behind and were eager to talk with those that could offer new insight and perspective. Session topics included:

  • Place-Based Learning
  • Best Practices and Program Comparison
  • Phenology
  • Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
  • Ecological Identity
  • Climate Change Literacy in Environmental Education
  • Activism-Oriented Environmental Education

» Continue reading 2017 Instructor Exchange