Cohort 9, Hello!

Over the past few months each member of Cohort 9 has found a new home here in Southern Oregon.  Read below for some brief biographies, and please stay posted as we begin to share our experiences in this beautiful area with you.

alessandro_broidoAlessandro Broido first discovered his love for nature and working with young people while volunteering in a rural Honduran community as a teenager. After building a life changing relationship with his host family, he continued to work with the youth-leadership organization Amigos de las Americas for three additional seasons in Mexico, Ecuador and most recently in Costa Rica directing cross-cultural volunteer trail projects in Carara National Park. After graduating from the University of San Francisco Alessandro moved to the remote northwest corner of California where he deepened his love for the natural world. He spent two years in Del Norte County discovering new avenues for working with youth as a school-based mentor in the garden, woodshop, and ropes course. He also directed a summer trail crew of high school students removing invasive weeds in the Six Rivers National Recreation Area and led a Redwood Canopy Tour Zip Line. The following two years he spent working for the Smith River Alliance coordinating volunteer projects and counting salmon during the spawning season. Today, Alessandro enjoys surfing, ultimate frisbee, hiking, catching amphibians, playing music and brainstorming creative farm-based lesson plans.



Ashley Waymouth hails from the rolling hills and spring-fed rivers of the Central Texas Hill Country. After receiving a history degree from Texas State University, she unexpectedly fell in love with the crystal clear San Marcos River. This connection was so strong, it ultimately altered the course of her life and led her down the path of environmental activism and education. Sharing and exploring nature has been the source of Ashley’s passion for the last six years, leading her to work as an educator, a community organizer, and most recently as a park ranger at Crater Lake National Park. Ashley loves to deeply listen to the natural world and strives to be a voice for the voiceless. She sees storytelling as a bridge between connecting everyday people with science and is excited to create alluring E.E. curriculum. Ashley’s desire to have an even greater impact on her community has led her to SOU’s Environmental Education program and she is delighted to be working with such an amazing cohort.


becky_yaegerBecky Yaeger grew up in Baltimore County, Maryland and spent lots of time recreating with her family by hiking, camping, kayaking and traveling. She attended Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY and earned a BA in Psychology while exploring the beautiful Finger Lakes, gorges, and forests of central New York. During and after college, she instructed with a youth program called Primitive Pursuits in Ithaca, and she became passionate about getting youth outdoors and connected to nature while learning wilderness survival skills and nature awareness. After college, Becky and her husband, Matt, road tripped across country twice and decided to relocate to Bend, Oregon where they explored mountains, lakes, high desert, and downhill skiing in Central Oregon. Becky worked for Cascade WILDS (Wilderness Immersion Learning Discovering Surviving), a 4-H youth program that Matt founded and instructed. She also studied to become an Oregon Master Naturalist, and then interned at the Environmental Center as an Outdoor School Intern and with Discover Your Forest as a Winter Conservation Education intern. After earning her MS in Environmental Education at SOU, Becky will continue tackling Nature Deficit Disorder by providing nature immersion programming in preschool, after school, and summer camp settings.



Bekah Campbell grew up in South Carolina, where she always had a passion for being a
teacher and being outdoors. It only made since to pursue a degree in Outdoor Education at Montreat College near Asheville, NC. After guiding people in outdoor adventures for a while, she realized she wanted to know more about everything in the natural world and connect people to their importance. It became more and more important to her to protect wild spaces that she loves to backpack, hike, bike, climb, and ski in. After marrying her amazing husband, she worked for 4 years in upstate New York for an academic and outdoor leadership program. The wild west began to call and the Campbells moved to Mammoth California to be ski instructors, and there decided she wanted to pursue a masters in her true passion.

christy_vanrooyenChristy VanRooyen
is a southern Oregon native, who developed a love for nature while exploring the forests near her childhood home.  Her insatiable scientific curiosity led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in Applied Environmental Sciences from Oregon Institute of Technology (OT). She gained extensive research experience as an air quality inspector and a geographic information system (GIS) analyst prior to beginning a career in academia.  She is currently an instructor at OT, where she teaches introductory chemistry, nutrition, and the occasional environmental course.  She spends her down time hiking and backpacking with her husband and three children.   Christy hopes to utilize her education and experiences to promote natural resource conservation and motivate people to pursue their own outdoor adventures.



Elizabeth Schyling very much wanted to be a zookeeper when she grew up.  Then, she went to Yale and studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and thought, perhaps, she would like to be a population ecologist when she grew up.  After the folks at Yale said, “Nice, well done, move along now,” she moved to Washington to live on a volcano and somehow tricked people into paying her to hike and play with small mammals.  One day, while yammering at some high schoolers about neotenic salamanders at Mount St. Helens, she had a bit of an existential crisis and thought, perhaps, she would like to teach when she grew up.  So she came to SOU, where she now thinks she might not grow up after all but has made a very good choice anyway.


erinn_holmesErinn Holmes originally hails from the rolling hills of northern Illinois, where she spent some period of every day on the back of a horse or with her toes buried in the mud. She fled to rural Wisconsin for her BS in biology at University of Wisconsin – Platteville, she was so inspired by the many facets of the natural world that she changed her career path a whole six times. During her time there, she got to spend two summers under the star-lit sky studying the impacts of White Nose Syndrome on local bat populations, which sparked her interest in research. But, after every ecology class she took, she found herself enthusiastically rushing home to her English-major roommate to share the knowledge she’d gained about the world around them. After considering many career options (seriously), it became clear that she wanted to invoke the joy in others that the natural world brings out in her. She found SOU and made the 36-hour trek across the US to join this cohort of environmental educators and has never looked back. She looks forward to a career in environmental education that allows her to minimize the gap between the scientific community and the general public. In her free time, Erinn loves to explore Oregon by foot, kayak, and ski with her cohort and trusty sidekick, a pup named Nova.



Eva Roberts grew up in the mountains of Montana, and has long called the rugged wilderness her home away from home. Eva spent her final semester at Montana State University student teaching in New Zealand, which sparked an immense passion for travel. After obtaining her B.S. in Elementary Education, Eva sought out a volunteer teaching experience in Austria, which allowed her to explore the mountains and cultural experiences of Europe extensively. Soon after, Eva fell in love with SCUBA diving, and traveled to faraway places to submerge herself in foreign oceans. Throughout all of this, Eva still aspired to connect people and educate communities about what truly matters to her – the great outdoors. That is what brought her to the Master’s of Science in Environmental Education program at Southern Oregon University. It is her dream to help others recognize and appreciate the natural world as much as she does. Eva hopes to incorporate her sense of adventure and love for the wild in a life-long career based around environmental education.


hope-braithwaiteHope Braithwaite spent much of her childhood romping through the forests and deserts in her backyard in southern Utah. Her passion for the outdoors grew from those experiences exploring, hiking, and searching for her favorite rock, agate. Hope attended Utah State University (USU) and earned a B.S. in Wildlife Science. During the summers she helped on research projects, from conducting plant surveys in the Colorado Plateau to trapping geese in the Yukon Delta, Alaska. With the help of fantastic advisors and a co-researcher, Hope conducted a research project to identify diet supplements for elk management. Although Hope found great joy in being outdoors collecting data that could help answer important ecological questions, she felt that something was missing. When Hope worked for Water Quality Extension at USU she found her missing piece, environmental education. Hope loved learning, sharing her newfound knowledge with others, and then watching those students explore and make their own discoveries. Ultimately, Hope would like to have a career in environmental education with public outreach and research components. She is thrilled to be in the environmental education graduate program at Southern Oregon University, and wants to thank her family and friends for their continued support and encouragement.

John Ward grew up on a small farm in southwestern Missouri.john_ward  There, his curiosity for nature was nourished spending time in the woods on the farm, fishing at local lakes and streams, and hunting with his father.  John attended Missouri State University, where he received a B.S. in Biology with and emphasis in Wildlife.  While attending college, John worked part time for the Wonders of Wildlife Museum, developing and implementing environmental education curriculum for a wide variety of groups.  One of his favorite experiences was helping to train teen volunteers to handle educational animals and present them at public events.  These experiences helped develop John’s passion for education and led him to a position, teaching outdoor science education at Hancock Field Station through the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI).  While employed with OMSI, John developed his skills as an educator and, after two seasons, decided he wanted to take his skills to the classroom.  He moved to Corvallis, OR and started working at a Boys & Girls Club afterschool program and teaching at an alternative school for rehabilitating youth.  John hopes to leave the Environmental Education program with the skills to bring project based learning to the public school setting as a high school biology teacher.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALianne Bailey is an Oregonian who calls Gresham and the Portland area home. Growing up, she loved going on family hikes and camping trips on Mt. Hood and down the Columbia Gorge. As an undergraduate at Pacific University of Oregon, she continued to explore the state’s natural wonders while earning a degree in Environmental Studies. After graduating, Lianne found enjoyment working at summer camps in the Cascades and at after school programs with the YMCA. She then stayed in the Portland area, working as an educator for the Columbia Slough Watershed Council during the school year and as a nature day camp instructor during the summers. In the fall of 2015, Lianne got the chance to be a Field Instructor for the Portland metro area’s Outdoor School. She loved the combination of outdoor science education and the innate community building that happens when people live and learn together. She came down to southern Oregon to join the Environmental Education and Masters of Teaching programs at SOU. She is looking forward to working with some amazing educators and exploring more of this beautiful area.



Morgyn Ellis has spent the better part of her life living at the intersection of salt marshes, preserved forest, and the Atlantic Ocean in her home state of New Jersey. Having grown to love these environments she earned a B.S. in Environmental Science and found out the best way to protect what you love is to get others to love and care about it too, prompting her to switch gears and pursue a career in outdoor education. Since then, she has been an educator in New Jersey, South Carolina, California, and finally Oregon. She is passionate about sensitive ecosystems and sharing the fascinating facts of nature with those young and old! While not working towards her Master’s she can be found outdoors exploring all the wonders that the Pacific Northwest has to offer.


malia_sutphinMalia Sutphin grew up in Seward which is a small coastal town in south-central Alaska. Growing up she enjoyed spending time in nature and around all kinds of animals. As a child she grew up on a goat farm and learned about proper animal care and husbandry. She completed her bachelor’s degree in Anchorage, Alaska at the University of Alaska Anchorage in Environment and Society. Throughout her college career she worked seasonally for Kenai Fjords National Park as an interpretive ranger. After completing college she shifted federal gears and spent the summer as an interpretive ranger for Fish and Wildlife at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. It was here Malia’s love for environmental education fully blossomed. Malia then spent the next two years traveling internationally with her sister, road tripping through Alaska, and working for the Department of Natural Resources-Public Information Center. In her free time Malia loves spending time with her guinea pigs Mr. Lahey and Baloo, working on crafts, and biking. She loves Southern Oregon and the Environmental Education program and hopes to stick around once she completes her degree.


Matthew Solberg grew up in Eugene, Oregon, but left the matthew_solberg2Ducks to pursue his passion in wildlife studies at Oregon State University. While working towards his BSc in Fisheries and Wildlife, he sought out experience abroad in Africa. Fostering close connections with local communities, Matthew found a niche in human-wildlife conflict. His interest in human dimensions of wildlife conservation grew as he spent time with the San Bushman of Namibia, working to trap and relocate large African carnivores in close proximity to livestock.  For a time, Matthew found himself in the dark studying clans of spotted hyena (Malawi). Research alone did not fulfill him. It wasn’t until his Peace Corps service in Sierra Leone, West Africa, that Matthew discovered another love… teaching. There in the village, his students pulled his heartstrings and shaped Dauda (Matthew) in ways he could never imagine. Now he strives to combine his passion in wildlife studies with teaching. He is excited to work with a cohort who hail from all walks of life to implement the best environmental education the world has ever seen! In his spare time, you can find Matthew surfing, catching lizards, and fueling his healthy addiction to coffee (damn good coffee).


melissa_donnerMelissa Donner is originally from Santa Clarita, CA, but truly found her home in the Pacific Northwest. She studied at Humboldt State University in Northern California earning a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Management and Protection focusing on Environmental Education. It was there that she discovered her passion for Environmental Education especially with early childhood education. She has spent time serving in the Peace Corps Paraguay in South America teaching Environmental Education in Spanish and Guarani. After returning to the U.S., she entered into the Environmental Education Master’s program at SOU. She is also doing a dual Master’s program for a Masters of Arts in Teaching plus an Oregon State Teaching License for Early Childhood Education and Elementary Education. She has a wide range of interests and skills including early childhood education, graphic design, hiking and international travel! Her dream is to one day find a career in which she can utilize her skills and passions in Garden and Farm Education, Early Childhood Education and Graphic Design, whether that be at a museum, botanical garden or in the classroom!



Suphasiri Muttamara (a.k.a. Jam) is from Bangkok, Thailand. Despite being a city girl, she didn’t like the city. Her favorite childhood memories are of when her family went birding and camping in the forest. It has always been her dream to work in nature. She attended Mahidol University in Thailand receiving a degree in Conservation Biology. While discussing conservation topics with her classmates, she realized that how connecting with nature from an early age inspired peoples’ attitudes, and how important this connection is for environmental conservation. After graduating, she worked with the United Nation Development Program (UNDP) as a project junior consultant. The work took her to the top of mountains of the Northern region in Thailand. There, she worked with local schools, and students to develop ecotourism practice, and a curriculum that included the forest ecosystem that influences the community. Realizing education is the best way to conserve nature, she flew over 100,000 miles to acquire knowledge and tools so she can bring them back to help develop her country.


Find Your Place: Musings from the Bear Creek Greenway

Bear Creek Greenway in the fall

In the summer, insects drone loudly beneath a thick canopy of riparian vegetation and ripe blackberries, while white fluff falls like snow. The future of Black Cottonwood trees along Bear Creek is certain. My wheels whir a harmony with the insects and the breeze down by the water is refreshing, a meditation to combat the southern Oregon heat. In the fall, cottonwood leaves dance pirouettes in the air, yellow-brown hearts strewn about the trail. School has started now, and I begin riding to Medford each Wednesday for my graduate teaching classes. A weekly celebration of bikes and the seasons and learning. Winter is stark. The rains are cold, but the path is clear of ice near the water, and the Great Blue Heron nests are now visible high in the trees. Bare branches reach for the sky, as I-5 traffic barrels past. cottonwood- The School for Aromatic StudiesThe path smells musty, like decomposing leaves, and we hope that spring will come again soon. Like clockwork it comes, with its sweet smell of lilacs and warmer days. The mornings come sooner and the rains are less chilling. Cottonwood buds emerge by the thousands coating the path with little brown bullets, resinous and fragrant. The smell is overwhelmingly delightful, like warmed beeswax inside a busy hive.

Riding my bike has always been a way for me to connect to the world around me. Everything seems so alive from my saddle: smells, sights, sounds, the feel of the air…all of it is so close, so present, so tangible and alive. I have traveled to great lengths and accomplished much on the seat of a bike. I have climbed mountain passes, slogged through three inches of snow, ridden from city to ocean, found hidden paths inaccessible to cars, and regularly glide by “rush hour” traffic in Ashland.

This past year, I have had the joy of getting to know the Bear Creek Greenway, a 20-mile trail that connects Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford, and Central Point with a single, concrete track. It meanders its way alongside Bear Creek, a tributary of the Rogue River that originates near Emigrant Lake. It is home to deer, salmon, and countless birds, including a notable Great Blue Heron rookery near Phoenix. During my rides along this path, I have written poems, had conversations with friends, watched the creek rise and fall with the seasons, and am always able to experience the world in the raw, even if I am riding through the pouring rain.Greenway

Riding a bike is just one way to feel connection with the natural world in our busy, technology-driven lives. As Karelia wrote in “The Water Ouzel,” a previous post, finding places to go back to again and again is essential for all humans, but most of all environmental educators. If we are to teach our students the importance of caring for and conserving beautiful places around them, we must practice what we preach.

NatureAwarenessI leave you with my favorite environmental education activity, “Secret Spots,” a classic EE activity written up by world-renowned environmental educator, Joseph Cornell. He encourages his audience of educators to feel connected to the places around them and pass this along to their students. Cornell’s bestselling book, Sharing Nature With Children, has now been updated 35 years later in an all-inclusive book called Sharing Nature: Nature Awareness Activities for All Ages. In this practice, the instructor allows his/her students to find their own “secret spot,” away from all other students. They return to this spot day after day, to write, draw, and observe how it changes. It is likely that we will never know every spot in our yard, our neighborhood, our town, or our favorite wilderness area, but it is important that we do form those connections as a modeling practice for our students, the future stewards of wild places. After all, as Jane Goodall reminds us, “Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved.”




The Sea within My Soul

“We all leave home to find home, at the risk of being forever lost.”  -Philip Hoare from The Sea Inside

I recently went out to dinner with a couple members of Cohort 8.  I always enjoy spending time and sharing a meal with the cohort outside the classroom.  It helps us strengthen the bonds we have formed throughout the program.  Additionally, the food is always delicious.  When I paid for my meal during this particular outing, the waitress noticed that I had something quite non-Oregonian about me.

“You are not from around here.  Where are you from?” the waitress asked.

“I’m from North Carolina,” I tell her.

I have introduced myself as a North Carolinian numerous times throughout my graduate school experience in the Master of Science in Environmental Education program at Southern Oregon University.  Although I originally hail from Illinois, North Carolina has been home for the past eleven years.  I drove over 2,900 miles from my hometown of Greenville, North Carolina, to start a new chapter in Ashland, Oregon.  With that long distance move came sacrifices.  I traded longleaf pines for ponderosas and coastal plains for mountain views.  The hardest topographic sacrifice I had to make, though, was trading the Atlantic Ocean for the Pacific.  On my first trip to the Oregon coast I asked myself, “This doesn’t seem right.  Where are all my sea oats?”

Sunset on the barrier island of Bald Head Island, North Carolina.

I felt out of place during my visit to the coast because it was so unlike the North Carolina shores and barrier islands I have grown to love.  Barrier islands along the coast of North Carolina are shaped by the wind and rain of storms that constantly change the landscape.  They serve as protection to mainland coastal communities during hurricanes.  One typical ecosystem of these islands includes the dunes.  The dunes may seem sparse of vegetation, but sea oats and other plants have deep roots that stabilize those systems.

View from a hike along Oregon’s coast.

The most striking contrast between the dunes of North Carolina’s beaches and Oregon’s coast is elevation.  While the dunes in North Carolina may resemble rolling hills, they do not compare to the majesty of the tall coastal mountains in Oregon.  The vegetation on these coastal mountains is comprised of coniferous forests and includes stands of Douglas firs and cedar trees.

Observing the tall stands of conifers along the Oregon coast greatly confused me, especially when I could hear the roar of the ocean.  The stark differences between the natural history along the coasts of North Carolina and Oregon also presented an opportunity for a personal study of coastal ecosystems.  I felt like Philip Hoare, author of The Sea Inside.  Hoare traveled across the globe detailing the world’s oceans and the personal connections humans have with the water.  From Southampton Water in England to New Zealand, Hoare presents natural, cultural, and personal histories of the ocean.  I dove into his prose while I read his book, and I took reflections of his travels to heart.  Hoare felt at ease in the water and the coastal communities he visited.  Like Hoare, I began to reflect on my own experiences.  I realized that I too have a connection to the sea.

From Philip Hoare:

In his book Hoare writes, “The sea sustains and threatens us, but it is also where we came from.”  I lived and worked as an Environmental Educator on the barrier island of Bald Head Island, North Carolina, during Summer 2014.  It was full of amazing, and sometimes contradictory, experiences.  The crashing waves and high tide of a hurricane brought stormy weather to the island, but when the storm moved, the sea was calm, plovers ran along the tide line, and tide pools exposed the intricate design of shells.  Bald Head Island changed me, just as the winds and storms constantly shaped the barrier island.  Those experiences are a part of me and have helped mold me into the environmental educator I am today.

I continue to return to the coast because I know that it is forever a part of my soul.  The roar of waves crashing on the beach is a familiar noise whether on the East coast or the West coast.  When I visit the beach and close my eyes, I am unable to differentiate between the shores of Bald Head Island and Cape Sebastian on the Oregon Coast Trail.  I return to what is familiar, and the coast forever represents home.

Whenever I introduce myself as a North Carolinian, such as I do to numerous people who fancy the conversation, they usually mention that I am a long way from home.  They are correct in that statement.  Home is not one place, though.  I left North Carolina and found wonder in Oregon, and I continue to do so every day.  I look towards the coast and listen to its sounds to remind myself that I am not lost.  I am home.

The Water Ouzel

Out of the corner of my eye I catch the flit of a dark, buzzing bird flying low over the water of Ashland Creek, just above Lithia Park. I’ve caught the melodic babbling brook song over the breeze (Click here for song and another). I pause, and search the riffles and tops of boulders for my favorite denizen of the sky and water, the Water Ouzel.

The Water Ouzel (ouzel) Cinclus mexicanus, or American Dipper (AMDI, dipper), as it is recognized by the American Ornithologist’s Union, is a small dark bird that lives a relatively secretive life in the Western United States’ clear, fast-flowing mountain waters. Being closely related to the wren family, the ouzel is most easily recognized by its slender insect-picking beak, upright-angled tail, and erratic flitting and foraging.

Perhaps the most amazing feature of this small bird is its prowess in the air and water. Much like me on a tropical vacation, the ouzel spends much of its time with its head underwater, looking for its audubonAMDInext meal (though I’m only a silent observer). American Dippers feed on macroinvertebrates, the aquatic larvae of insects, like the stonefly, mayfly, and caddisfly. This unique ability is facilitated by the AMDI’s transparent nictitating membrane, a protective longitudinal moving extra eyelid; an insect eating wren-like beak; strong legs; long, grasping toe-nails; and short powerful wings. While snorkeling, the ouzel moves along on underwater stones and cobbles, searching for tasty morsels. When satisfied with its gleaning in an area, the ouzel flits upstream or downstream, landing on the occasional mid-stream boulder to sing and call. When just the right riffle has been found, the ouzel returns to its feast.

On the walks that I am lucky enough to spy my favorite bird, I know that I am blessed. Nature reveals its secrets to the patient, brave, and passionate. As I sit and watch what I have now come to call my Water Ouzel, the worries of the day, week, and month drift away. I watch this small being in wonder. Alone on the boulder in the big riffle, the little soul sings its heart out in trills, whistles, and buzzes, then flits to a small riffle and begins searching for a bite to eat. In its little niche, the dipper has found its place. Flying up and down this quieter reach, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Ashland, this dipper is wild and free.


Walking Home

We cowered under Joshua trees during a hailstorm in the Mojave Desert, ran out of food just past Mt. Whitney, had a fight over whose turn it was to carry the tent on Mt. San Jacinto, and struggled through endless snow-covered mountain passes. We baked in the desert; we froze in the Sierras. We carried too much water near Kennedy Meadows; we didn’t carry enough water over Hat Creek Rim. We earned painful blisters from the wrong shoes; we chafed on our thighs, armpits, and shoulders. From Mexico to Ashland, my boyfriend, Andrew, and I hiked the infamous Pacific Crest Trail.

pic whitney
The top of Mt. Whitney

But amidst all the inevitable struggling that comes when two Midwesterners who have never backpacked before decide to walk 1,726 miles on a remote 18-inch wide path
through the wilds of the west, we witnessed so much beauty. The sunset over Mt. Shasta, coyotes yipping in the desert twilight, cerulean alpine lakes near Yosemite. We watched a down-wind bear rip apart a log for grubs, fell asleep under the clearest sky we’d ever seen, and ate lunch on carpets of wildflowers.

But through it all, a single question kept arising:

“What the #&^* is that!?”

pic shasta sunset
Mt. Shasta sunset

I grew up in northern Michigan, Andrew in southern Ohio, and we went to college in North Carolina and Ohio, respectively. We both moved around quite a bit after undergrad, living in New York City, Washington D.C., Madagascar, Utah, Mississippi, my native northern Michigan, and aboard a Semester at Sea vessel. I did briefly live in Davis, CA, but never really got outside the Central Valley. So, we had effectively never before been in the mountains of California and Oregon prior to our PCT adventure. We honestly didn’t know a ponderosa pine from a Douglas fir or a Steller’s jay from a scrub jay. The first time I saw a marmot, I jumped back in astonishment, quickly announcing to Andrew that I had just seen “a beaver without a beaver tail.”

pic marmot
They do kind of look like beavers, right?

When we arrived in Ashland in July, Andrew continued hiking the trail north, while I stopped to begin taking the requisite summer courses with my cohort, one of which was Stewart Janes’ Environmental Issues class. In this class, not only did I learn the difference between pines and firs, I learned to look at the cones to tell the difference between ponderosa and Jeffrey pines, the buds to determine Douglas firs from white firs. I learned that the tempting red berries with the maple-like leaves I saw everywhere along the northern California PCT were called thimbleberries, and that they were edible. (I could have been eating them the whole time!)

pic lupine
Lupine in northern California

I learned that what Andrew and I had called the “devil plant” due to its sharp spines was actually called yellow star thistle, an extremely virulent invasive that can cause a neurological disorder in horses if consumed. I learned that the trees that reminded me of the southern magnolias on Duke’s campus were called Pacific madrones and that they store energy in an underground lignotuber as a fire adaptation. The plant I thought of as holly on the PCT was actually Oregon grape (the state flower) and those grooves in fallen trees were made by bark beetle larvae. The carpets of wildflowers we walked through were lupine, and the blue-bellied lizards skittering beneath our feet were called western fence lizards and could rid a tick of Lyme disease.

pic 1,000 miles
Celebrating a milestone!

Because we were mystified most of the time on the trail and didn’t have names for the plants and animals we saw everyday, arriving in Ashland by foot primed me for learning post-trail more than any other mode of travel could have. Yes, I arrived in Ashland with the strongest legs and the most sun-bleached eyebrows I will ever have, but most importantly, I arrived with my eyes wide open to the natural world. I came wanting information, hungry to feel grounded in the strange world through which I had been walking the last few months. The PCT taught me so many things, from how to feel pretty without makeup on to how to feel comfortable relying on just myself and one other person. But the most important thing the trail gave me was a sense of wonder for the new environment in which I found myself, a craving that let me learn about this place. To learn how to call it home.

Zoos and Environmental Education

Throughout this holiday season, thousands of people flocked to their local zoo in hopes of immersing themselves in the lights, sounds, and smells of Christmas that many city zoos displayed as “Zoo Lights.” While this is a seasonal event that zoos provide as family-friendly entertainment, throughout the year, zoos also provide numerous environmental and conservation education opportunities. Many zoo visitors may only see the entertainment value in zoo visits, but it is almost impossible to go to a zoo without being educated about the environment and wildlife conservation. As David Grazian explains in his new book American Zoo: A Sociological Safari, zoos can be “centers of environmental education with the potential to mobilize audiences around issues of great import, from ocean pollution to climate change.”1 According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), zoos and aquariums are visited by 183 million people annually. This is just in the United States and only includes the approximately 220 zoos and aquariums accredited by the AZA. With this many visitors, zoos have a large platform upon which they can cultivate an environmentally literate community. In fact, this is a key focus for the Oregon Zoo located in Portland, OR.

ZoologoV130gold.pdfI had the pleasure of speaking with Alison Heimowitz, School and Teacher Liaison at the Oregon Zoo, who gave me some insight into the zoo’s innovative environmental education programs. Alison serves as the interface between schools and the zoo and coordinates the programs that go into Portland schools. One of the most recent programs is the Salmon Habitat Restoration Project. This program, which the zoo created for a Portland elementary school with a sustainability focus, teaches students about the biology of salmon, with each grade level focusing on a different aspect of salmon biology. For example, kindergarten learns about habitat, 1st grade learns about adaptations, 2nd biodiversity and so on. Students in 3rd grade study the life cycle of salmon by actually raising salmon from eggs and eventually releasing them into a nearby stream. Students also restored salmon habitat by planting trees along stream banks to create much needed shade, as salmon prefer cold water temperatures.


In addition to the school programs developed by the Oregon Zoo, there are a number of other education programs that take place within the zoo including zoo school, zoo teens, ZAP teens, and exhibit interpretation. Oregon Zoo’s commitment to education has led to the expansion of the education center, which is currently under construction but should be opening in 2017.

Many zoos are situated smack dab in the middle of urban metropolises. This is not coincidence but by design. David Grazian explained that the first US zoos were created as “oases of nature” as a way to escape the industrial and urban development of the 19th and 20th centuries.1 Just because these zoos are in urban environments does not mean that there is not still potential for environmental education. John H. Falk, Sea Grant Professor of Free-Choice Learning, states in his article “Evidence for the Educational Value of Zoos and Aquariums” that “many members of the public do see zoo and aquarium experiences as vicarious wilderness experiences, and…for an increasing number of urban dwellers a visit to a zoo or aquarium may be the only ‘nature experience’ they have.”2 

Tracy-Aviary-LogoTracy Aviary, one of only two aviaries in the US to be accredited by the AZA, is situated in urban Salt Lake City, UT. The aviary has embraced its urban location and created an environmental education program entitled “Nature in the City.” Free and open to the public this family-oriented education program provides opportunities for participants to explore the nature that is all around us, even if we’re in the city. The programs take place in locations all around the city to show just how much nature is out there that may have been bypassed. In addition to “Nature in the City,” Tracy Aviary also offers Birds of the Great Salt Lake Wetland Tours. These daylong trips give participants a greater understanding of the significance of the Great Salt Lake as migratory bird stop over and nesting habitat. Although it may not take place directly in the city, this program still shows the urban dwellers of Salt Lake City that there are significant natural areas in close proximity that need our protection.3

If you ask an environmental educator why they do what they do, I’m sure many, if not all, will say they want to help connect people, kids especially, with nature. Well, this is a goal of many, if not all, zoos as well. In fact, there is a recent movement within the zoo community to create what are called “Nature Play” areas. The AZA, in partnership with The Walt Disney Company, are working to help zoos develop Family Nature Clubs. These will be “safe havens for unstructured nature play” which are “child-directed and allow for spontaneous learning” within AZA accredited zoos. There is vast research showing the mental and physical benefits of allowing children to play outside in nature, but much of the learning done by today’s children is so structured and focused on technology. These Family Nature Clubs will allow families to bond and learn about wildlife and nature while also fostering a conservation ethic through self-led discovery and shared experiences. As stated by the AZA, “More traditionally structured environmental education programs serve an important role in cultivating an environmental ethic, but direct experience with nature and opportunities for unstructured play in nature are at the heart of most environmental action in adulthood.”4 

g_ZNElogoOne of the zoos incorporating the ideas of nature play into their park is Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo which is part of Zoo New England. Through campaign efforts the zoo has raised money to build the Nature’s Neighborhoods: Children’s Zoo where families can experience and learn about red pandas through the Bamboo Climber, climb into a giant eagle’s nest to get an aerial view of the zoo, and track animals through the Tallgrass Maze. This interactive and experiential learning opportunity provides children and their families with much needed connection to nature while instilling them with conservation values.5

Nature’s Neighborhoods: Children’s Zoo “adventure play” area coming to Franklin Park Zoo

While many visitors may not realize it, zoo education expands far beyond the interpretive signs in front of the animal exhibits that guests may or may not read. Zoos are creating opportunities for guests of all ages to connect to nature, become environmentally literate, and participate in conservation action. With about 1 in every 10 people visiting a zoo this year, zoos really can and do make a difference in educating people about our natural world.

For more information:

1 American Zoo: A Sociological Survey

2 Evidence for the Educational Value of Zoos and Aquariums

3 Tracy Aviary: Nature in the City

4 Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium Resources

5 Franklin Park Zoo Nature’s Neighborhoods: Children’s Zoo


Featured image from The Oregon Zoo:

Poison Oak, the Lurking Plant

Toxicodendron diversilobum. Until October 2015, poison oak was just another plant with the potential of causing minor irritation to me.

Having grown up in Colorado I had trained my eyes to look for stinging nettle and poison ivy, and though I have had many a run in with stinging nettle, it was nothing a little rubbing alcohol couldn’t cure. So when I first began adventuring in the Northwest woods, a stronghold of poison oak, I kept a weary, albeit lazy, eye out for this unfamiliar, lurking nemesis.

Poison oak grows ubiquitously throughout Oregon, west of the Cascades. It is found in the ponderosa shrub forests, amongst the chaparral shrubs, in the shade of the oaks, and along the coast. Its growth fpoisonoakorm ranges from a trailing vine, reaching high for the sun, to a short and
spindly pseudo-shrub, to a robust grouping of groping, poison stems. Poison oak leaves resemble those of oak in their lobed appearance, and one can recall the foreboding “Leaves of three, leave it be” when setting out for a romp in the woods. Spring and summer will present a display of small flowers and white fruits, called drupes. Starting in early fall, bright green leaves begin to turn a sunset orange-red hue and by early November, they have fallen.

A poison oak rash, when it’s bad, is really, really bad. It’s not just an itch. It’s not just a burn. It’s some terrible concoction of the two that begs to be scratched, rubbed, and iced. It makes you moan in agony as you search the depths of your memory for when you got the few drops of the not-so-innocuous oil on your right wrist and left cheekbone.

The oily sap of poison oak, or urushiol, causes mild to severe contact dermatitis on the areas of skin it touches. And much to the chagrin of the outdoor enthusiast, trace amounts of the oil can stay on surfaces for days, weeks, months, even years, waiting for a touch of naked skin. Urushiol is found in all parts of the poison oak plant –living or dead—including leaves, stems, and roots. In fact, when poison oak is burned, the oils volatilize and can cause severe allergic reactions in the lungs of those who inhale the smoke.

Interestingly enough, poison oak is a popular browse for Pacific black-tailed deer and range livestock, as it is rich in phosphorous, calcium, and sulfur, and does not evoke the painful allergic reaction seen in humans. In Native American cultures various parts of the plant were used; both as a basket textile and medicinal herb. Popular American folklore even claims that drinking the milk of a goat that has eaten poison oak will render the drinker immune to the unpleasant consequences of interacting with the plant.

My doctor told me I had very likely picked the oils up from my dog’s fur. And unfortunately, I do not own a milking goat that eats poison oak. After a heavy two week dose of Prednisone and numerous washes with Tecnu©, my face and wrist were home free, but my mind remains a prisoner of this plant.

Yet, like we all must, I continue the trek into the unknown. I do my best to keep an eye out for this formidable plant, but am reminded that even the best intentions can still procure unwanted results. In my quest to make meaning out of all things unfortunate, here is what I learned from poison oak: be grateful for the health you have, because even a few small drops of oil can temporarily take it from you; be patient, even the greatest temptations, like scratching, are sometimes best left alone; and finally, love those that love you for you, because only true love can still kiss someone with puffy, splotchy eyelids and a red, swollen cheek.

Discovering natural wonders with the Siskiyou Environmental Education Center (SEEC)