Only the hardiest of souls venture to North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake, 2 hours east of Bellingham, in the winter. Highway 20 might be strewn with boulders or blanketed with snow or black ice. The Institute itself is eerily quiet during those months with no programs running, much of the staff gone and graduate students plugging away at seemingly-unending projects.
Visit during the fall or spring, however, and you’ll find the complete opposite. Set foot on any of the Institute’s nine miles of trails and I guarantee you’ll find yourself face to face with any number of smiling faces. These smiles belong to children, primarily fifth graders attending Mountain School, and you’ll find them hunting for mushrooms, teaching each other about native plants, going on the journey of a water molecule or carefully camouflaging themselves behind a fallen log.
Mountain School is one of North Cascade Institute’s proudest accomplishments. Established in 1990 at Newhalem Campground in North Cascades National Park, the program has served over 26,000 students from all over Whatcom and Skagit counties, as far south as Seattle and Olympia and from Methow and Wenatchee to the east. Students from grades 4-12 come to us for three to five days and leave, we hope, with a deeper connection to their environment. In just four and a half months, three months in the spring and one-and-a-half in the fall, North Cascades Institute serves over 2,000 students and aims to inspire all of them.
For our 4th through 6th graders, we teach our Ecosystems Exploration curriculum. We equip them with hand lenses, art supplies, and, of course, snacks, and then let them discover what sparks their imagination. This time of year, as birds return to the North Cascades and decay yields to new growth, we stop every few feet to listen to a bird song, ooh and ahh over a wildflower, or examine a clump of Witch’s Hair lichen. In the fall, their attention turns to spending hours searching for mushrooms.
For our 7th through 12th grade students, the educational approach changes. We – North Cascades Institute staff, naturalists and graduate students aspiring to be environmental educators – are all too aware of the stigma often associated with “science.” Science is mathematical, secluded, and conducted by people in white coats.
But we believe that science can be synonymous with adventure. We believe that high school students are every bit as capable of collecting data, analyzing their findings, and drawing conclusions. In our Field Science and Leadership curriculum for the older students, we equip them with a different set of tools: spherical densitometers (don’t worry, I didn’t know what it was either), Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) tapes, quadrats, clinometers, macroinvertebrate keys and dissolved oxygen probes. Using this field equipment, students design their own science experiment, either focusing on the habitat of a North Cascades carnivore or aquatic variables in the Skagit watershed. And yes, we still stop for wildflowers.
I like to think that the true message of the Mountain School curriculum, whether geared towards 10 year olds or 17 year olds, is interconnectivity. Students come to our local National Park and learn about the interplay of living and non-living components of the ecosystem. They might learn about how tree species grow differently due to competition for sunlight, or how a mink’s ability to thrive hinges directly on proximity to moving water. Maybe they’ll learn about the transfer of energy through the food chain, or why large rocky slopes are the best places to spot pikas.
Our Ecosystems Exploration students complete a Closing Ceremony before they depart on school buses headed back home. There is always palpable enthusiasm to share new learning and connections they have made. One of my favorite components of this ceremony is the sharing of an unselfish wish, and these wishes can be powerful. They reflect a deeper connection with the land and a desire for positive global change.
When I started graduate school in Western Washington University’s Masters in Environmental Education program, with a year-long residency at the North Cascades Institute, I knew nothing about teaching children. With a background in leading backpacking trips and working with troubled young adults, I hadn’t spent any time around 10 year olds since I’d been one myself. Diving into teaching Mountain School was, and continues to be, a challenging and inspiring adventure. Some of the comments from departing students remind me why I do what I do, and demonstrate how meaningful the Mountain School experience can be.
According to one of my most recent students from Centennial Elementary in Mount Vernon: “The nature here is amazing, the beauty heart-stopping. The silence is wonderful, the life indescribable. I wish that everyone would have a chance to have the same experience.”
Me, too, Dallin. Me, too.
Originally published in Southside Living, July 2015. Photos by Rick Allen.