Inquiry: Letting kids wonder

“Scientific inquiry” is one of those things I thought I knew how to do. I had taught middle school science and I’d worked several seasons of outdoor science school. I loved doing experiments with kids and I tried to incorporate them into my teaching as much as possible. I got into this field because of my love of doing science with kids. So I must have it down, right?

But as I researched ways to incorporate inquiry into environmental education for my “Trends in EE” class, I discovered that I still had a lot to learn. I slowly came to the realization that most of my attempts to “do science” with kids had actually been far too scripted to qualify as real science. I had followed the all-mighty “Scientific Method” because it was in all my textbooks. How could it be wrong? Besides, it was the only way I remembered learning science. As a teacher, I had tried to get kids to ask and then test their own questions (one of the key elements of “authentic” inquiry), but it had been extraordinarily difficult. The more I learned about authentic inquiry through my research, the more I realized that it didn’t have to be so hard.

Kids are naturally able to evaluate, critique, and defend their ideas based on validity and reasoning. They just need us to provide them with a meaningful context and some encouragement to begin “wondering.” When it comes to testing their own questions, the “tests” don’t always have to happen in the lab. One of the articles I read pointed out that, while “school science” nearly always includes testing one variable in the lab and controlling all others, many real scientists don’t work this way. Field biologists engage in descriptive and comparative studies. They build models and do surveys. The reason I had found it so hard for my students to investigate their own questions was that I was trying to squeeze all of their questions into a narrow mold. My research on scientific inquiry showed me a new way.

I’m not the only teacher who struggled to incorporate inquiry into the science classroom. Inquiry requires a subject interesting enough that students want to ask questions about it. It’s even more likely to be successful if students feel their investigation will make a difference in their world.  Environmental education can provide both of these things, since nature provides an endless about of complex subject matter and plenty of unsolved environmental issues. For this reason, I believe we can increase our students’ scientific literacy by incorporating environmental education into science classes at all levels. At the same time, inquiry is a sure way to develop traits essential to environmentally literate citizens. Inquiry can nurture an interest in natural systems as well as an understanding of their complexity. At the same time, inquiry develops the agency, critical thinking, and collaboration skills that are so desperately needed to move our students from knowledge to action. Authentic inquiry and environmental action are natural partners.

All this new knowledge makes me feel pretty guilty about my scientific method past. But I pledge, from here on out, to look beyond the textbooks to where the real learning happens.  I am thrilled to be part of a team designing an inquiry framework for our Fall in the Field outdoor science program. And of course, I plan to incorporate inquiry into my student teaching lessons as well. I look forward to the next steps in my inquiry journey and I can’t wait for the discoveries to come.

(Katie MacDiarmid)

Students at DCC

The Mysterious, Amphibious Giant

Outfitted in a dry suit, snorkel and mask, I observed juvenile salmon taking refuge in a small, clear pool of Portuguese Creek in the Siskiyou Mountains. I remained still as I counted the juvenile Chinook and Steelhead. Suddenly, a creature emerged from the pool’s depths. Its foot-long pink body swam like a snake, but had four legs and bright-orange, fuzzy appendages coming from each side of its head.

This mysterious animal quickly glided through the water toward the school of small fish. I remained still as the large, amphibious creature moved in front of my mask, opened its mouth wide, and gobbled up a juvenile salmon. My lucky observation of this predator-prey interaction fueled my passion for Pacific Giant Salamanders, and I would like to share that passion with you!

Photo by: S. Oster

Pacific Giant Salamanders belong to the family Dicamptodontidae. The one in the picture above looks like it lost a portion of its tail, perhaps due to predation.

Description: Pacific Giant Salamanders are one of the largest salamanders in the world, measuring over 14 inches long! They have marbled skin in a variety of colors including: brown, orange, gray, and purple. They have hardened toenails for climbing and digging.

Distribution: The Pacific Giant is a-year round resident of the coastal mountain areas of northern California, Oregon and Washington (with the exception of the Olympic Peninsula).

Habitat: They reside in undisturbed streams and mountain lakes. The spend most of their time under rocks or underground.


How can you tell the difference between larval and adult Pacific Giant Salamanders?

Larvae Photo by: S. Oster

Pacific Giant Salamanders in the larval life stage are smaller than the adults, only reaching a length of 8-10 inches. They also have orange gills on each side of the back of their head.

Larvae spend most of their time living in the streams feeding on a variety of aquatic invertebrates including insect larvae and crayfish. They have been known to eat some vertebrates such as juvenile salmonids and sculpins.

Larval Pacific Giants typically metamorphose into adults 18-24 months after hatching but can retain their gills for an aquatic adult stage (neoteny).

Adult_Photo by: S. Oster

The larvae lose their gills, grow a few inches in length, and gain a narrower tail while changing into adults.

Adult Pacific Giant Salamanders are primarily terrestrial, meaning they live on land. It is not understood why adults are rare as compared to the aquatic larvae.

Terrestrial adults can be found under surface debris and in underground tunnels. They hunt for prey such as snails, slugs, small mice, shrews, and other small land creatures.

Adults migrate back to the stream to reproduce. Females lay eggs in slow moving water in May and guard them until they hatch in December or January. The inch long larvae leave immediately to fend for themselves.

Pacific Giant Salamander Facts!
  • Pacific Giants are “sit and wait” predators, thrusting at their prey at high speeds.
  • When threatened, they can produce a low pitched barking sound.
  •  Pacific Giant Salamanders can live up to 25 years!
  • In British Columbia, Pacific Giant Salamanders are listed as endangered due to their limited range.
  • Their predators include weasels and otters, snakes, and large salmonids.
Gopher Snake eating a Pacific Giant Salamander_Photo by: S. Oster


Nussbaum, R.A. 1969. Nest and eggs of the Pacific  Giant Salamander, Dicamptodon ensatus (Eschscholtz). Herpetologica 25:257-262.

Nussbaum, R.A., E.D. Brodie Jr., and R.M Storm. 1983. Amphibians and reptiles of the Pacific northwest. University of Idaho Press, Moscow, ID.

Parker, M.S. 1994. Feeding ecology of the stream-dwelling Pacific Giant Salamanders (Dicamptodon ensatus). Copeia 1994(3):705-718.

Stebbins, R.C. 1985. A field guide to western reptiles and amphibians. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA.

I Don’t Know its Name, so I Call it Magic

As you (re)discover the wonders of spring, consider the following from The Secret Garden:

“The great scientific discoveries I am going to make, will be about Magic.  Magic is a great thing, and scarcely anyone knows anything about it except for a few people in old books… I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us – like electricity and horses and steam.

When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead.  Then something began pushing things up out of the soil and making things out of nothing.  One day things weren’t there and another they were.  I have never watched things before, and it made me feel very curious.  Scientific people are always curious, and I am going to be scientific.  I keep saying to myself: “What is it? What is it?”  It’s something.  It can’t be nothing.  I don’t know its name, so I call it Magic.  I have never seen the sun rise, but Mary and Dickon have, and from what they tell me I am sure that is Magic, too.  Something pushes it up and draws it.  Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky, and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something were pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast.  Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing.  Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people.  So it must be all around us.  In this garden – in all the places.”

Burnett, FH (1911). The Secret Garden.(pp. 185-186 ). London, England: The Folio Society.

Make a “Flora Explora” notebook!

We continue our theme of discovering plants during spring during our second Emerging Naturalists post, with the creation of a “Flora Explora” notebook. Spring time offers wonderful opportunities to learn about the plants, or flora, that live all around us. This activity is designed to help emerging naturalists closely observe and record plants that are sprouting and flowering at this very moment. By focusing on the very tangible changes that are happening to plants this time of year, you develop a personal connection with the natural world that is all around us, while becoming an expert on your local flora!  All that is needed is a note pad, pencil, and enthusiasm!

1)      The Journal:

Start by making a personalized “Flora Explora” journal- decorate with markers, pictures, stickers, etc.- maybe even bind your own! Whatever you choose to do, make this a journal you want to write in, draw in, and one that you can easily tote around with you.

2)      Begin by exploring a section of your yard, park, school grounds, etc. and note the location (so that you can find the same plant again). You could also record the weather, time of day, and date of observation of at least two plants that you find interesting.

Record any characteristics that stand out to you when you observe individual plants. For example: height/leaf-length, color(s), shiny/dull, flowers, buds, scents, etc.  Trees are particularly interesting this time of year because leaves are emerging or about to emerge…very cool to watch in action. You can record as many as you wish, just try to use a new page for each new plant. Keep in mind that these plants will revisited and new observations will be made upon each new visit to the same plant.

3)      Continue to do this each day (or when possible), recording new observations upon each visit. You will be able to watch plants grow over a period of time.

4)      Throughout your discoveries, try to use field manuals and your recorded characteristics to identify these plants. Maybe you can answer the following question- what are some differences between evergreen and deciduous plants? After several weeks, or once you feel that the plant’s growth has slowed, you can bid your plant farewell until next year.

5)      Save this note book, and see if you find the same plants next year- did they emerge/flower at the same time? Why do you think this is so?

6)      Take pictures if you can, and paste them into your journal. Wouldn’t it be fun to create a flipbook using your pictures?!

7)      Enjoy your time outside!!!

Skunks for dinner

What animal is one of the only animals to regularly eat skunks?

The Great Horned Owl, or Bubo virginianus!

Read below to learn more about Great Horned Owls:

Photo by: K. Bradley

Call: Hoo-h-HOO-hoo-hoo

Size: Great horned owls are 22” long, have a 44” wingspan and weigh about 3.1 lbs

Habitat: Open forests, deserts, suburban and urban areas, and agricultural areas

Diet: Small mammals, rabbits, geese, herons, birds, other owls and raptors, amphibians, reptiles and some invertebrates.

Fun Facts:

  • Great Horned Owls are nocturnal
  • Owls have binocular vision, and asymmetrical ear placement (one ear positioned higher than the other), allowing them to accurately pinpoint their prey, even in low light or darkness.
  • Due to soft fringed feather edges and wing shape, Great Horned Owls can fly nearly silently, allowing them to sneak up on their prey.
  • A common myth says that owls can turn their heads 360 degrees, but in reality they can only turn them 270 degrees (3/4 of a full circle).
  • Owls can rotate their heads 270 degrees because they have 14 cervical (neck) vertebrae, while humans and other mammals have only 7 vertebrae in their necks!
  • Great Horned Owls have 200-300 pounds of pressure per square inch (psi) in their talons…about three times greater psi than human jaws!
GHO Range


Finding Oregon: a video by Uncage the Soul

“We get so preoccupied with ourselves, the words we speak, the plans and projects we conceive, that we become immune to the glory of creation. We barely notice the cloud passing over the moon or the dewdrops clinging to the rose petals…we are so accustomed to buying prepackaged meats and fish and fowl in supermarkets. We grow complacent and lead practical lives. We miss the experience of awe, reverence, and wonder.”
Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel
A video to help you experience some awe:
From their website:
Finding Oregon is the compilation of six months of timelapse photography across the state of Oregon, punctuated by a 1600 mile road trip in September. We’ve filmed the Columbia River Gorge, Mt Hood, Mt Jefferson, the Southwestern Coast, the Alvord Desert, Leslie Gulch, Blue Mountains, Crater Lake, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Deschutes River, and more. We’re proud to have touched all four corners of the state; however Oregon is the kind of place that the more you see, the more places there are to still discover.

Fear of nature and environmental education

As part of an education class on human development, all of our graduate students complete a research project on a topic of our choice, related to environmental education, culture, and human development. I chose to do my research on ecophobia, or fear of nature, and have included a reasoning of why I chose this topic, as well as a summary of my results. My main method of research was reading articles and books and synthesizing the information presented. Works are cited at the end; if you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend these books.

Reasoning for researching this topic

As children grow up, they are influenced by the authority figures in their life, their own life experiences, and the time/place they grow up in. All of these influences play into the presence or absence of ecophobia (or ecophilia) in an individual’s life, and how those feelings are expressed. Ecophobia/ecophilia plays a huge role in environmental education, because whether in nature or not, how someone perceives the environment affects their reaction towards nature. This is important for environmental educators to keep in mind, since people’s reactions should factor into the design and delivery of a program.

Summary of findings

Influences/Causes of ecophobia:

  1. (Uncontrollable) frightening situation of object that individual experiences
  2. Seeing or hearing about #1 (above) from someone else
  3. Ignorance/misinformed/inexperience
  4. Cultural or religious belief

Wilderness and the American Mind

In this book, Nash tracks the American perceptions of nature, from colonial time to current time. In general, the greater the quantity of uncontrollable wilderness (nature) exists, the more Americans feared nature. As we developed into present times and began to live in cities or suburbs instead of fighting every day to survive in the wilderness, we began to perceive the same nature in a romanticized light. Additionally, as the “supply” of nature decreased, demand began t increase. Nash has a nice chart in one of the last chapters that diagrams this trend of valuation of nature based on supply and demand.

However, while this figure makes sense, it is impossible separate the progression of knowledge as it was gained over the years, and the migration of most Americans from living with nature to living on the edges of nature. The idea of the progression of knowledge and understanding of nature is important  as it relates back to the third cause of ecophobias (see above), but as it happened at the same time as the migration away from living in wilderness, it is hard to distinguish what actually led to the Romantic movement.

Beyond Ecophobia and Last Child in the Woods

The premise of Beyond Ecophobia is that we need to provide developmentally appropriate environmental education, and cultivating a sense of place and wonder before we ask youth to “save the world”.  Richard Louv also echoes these ideas in his book Last Child in the Woods, as well as the idea of crime as a deterrent to spending time in nature, and accessibility problems in getting to nature. All of this, he argues, has led to a generation that is completely out of touch with their natural world, and this has led to a whole host of problems in school, with environmental degradation, with relationships, and more. Louv would say that the main cause of ecophobia is inexperience with nature. This is a developmental topic because it influences so much more than just interactions with nature. It is also a cultural issue, as the place you live in and the people you are surrounded by, influence perceptions of nature.


I think it is important to distinguish between fear of nature and fearlessness, because while some degree of fear is healthy in helping people to avoid dangerous situations (like our ancestors did with snakes and lightning), it is not healthy if our actions and responses are out of our control, or irrational. The result of such fear is not healthy for us, the environment, or our society. Knowing the causes and trends of ecophobias, it makes it easier to appropriately design and deliver an environmental education program that will be successful, as in the Listening to Children article.


Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. Yale University Press, 2001.

Sobel, David. Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. The Orion Society, 1996.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder. 2nd ed. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008.

Burgess, Donald J., Jolie Mayer-Smith. Listening to Children: Perceptions of Nature. The Journal of Natural History Education and Experience, Volume 5 (2011).

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